Apple’s Emergency SOS link puts it in the fight against satellites with SpaceX and more

After Apple announced that the iPhone 14 and 14 Pro can send messages via satellite in an emergency, it becomes clear that the company hasn’t just introduced a new feature. Typically, it also became a key player in a new industry virtually overnight by becoming heavily involved in satellite communications by adding Emergency SOS via satellite.

Apple has partnered with Globalstar for its satellite operations and plans to use the company’s constellation of 24 satellites to run its service, confirming longstanding rumors about its plans for Band 53/n53 communications. In practice, that means Apple has joined the litany of companies trying to “eliminate dead zones,” as T-Mobile put it when it announced a partnership with SpaceX last month to create its own emergency communication service. Like that service, Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite will initially only be available in the United States. (Even there are some caveats – it might be less reliable in northern parts of Alaska, and not all international travelers will be able to use the feature when visiting.)

Given the magnitude of the physical, financial and regulatory effort to launch satellites into space, there are a surprising number of players in the field. A company called Lynk Global is trying to build a global emergency communications network that works with unmodified phones, and it claims it became the first to text from space in a 2020 test of its satellite. Meanwhile, a company called AST SpaceMobile hopes to use satellite-to-phone communications for 4G and even 5G internet and plans to deploy a test satellite by the end of this week. Amazon is even involved in its Kuiper project, but so far the deals we’ve heard about for this system have involved beaming internet to cell towers rather than directly to phones.

At the iPhone 14 “Far Out” launch event on Wednesday, Apple made it clear that it would be involved with the satellite emergency response system. “We have set up relay centers staffed with highly trained emergency specialists ready to receive your text messages and call an emergency service provider on your behalf,” said Ashley Williams, modeling and company satellite simulation. And while the company has hinted that it’s been involved in “infrastructure innovation” for the feature over the past few years, that doesn’t quite reflect the scale of its investment.

According to a report by Reuters, Apple is investing $450 million in satellite infrastructure, with most of that investment going to Globalstar. Apple also agreed to pay 95% of the costs of the new satellites associated with the feature, according to an SEC filing.

Apple showed off some satellite animations during its presentation – a picture of the type of thing it pays for.
Image: Apple

Based on Globalstar’s revenue estimates in the filing, Tim Farrar, an analyst with Telecom satellite and telecommunications-focused consulting and research firm Media and Finance Associates, said he expects these satellites cost Apple up to $50 million by 2026. Farrar also noted that Apple appears to be paying a “relatively low price” for the service. “Globalstar recorded revenues of $124 million last year. This amount is expected to reach $185 million to $230 million in 2023,” he said, saying this indicated that Apple would pay Globalstar around $110 million next year. Apple said the service will be free for users for the first two years, but didn’t say how much it would cost thereafter.

This price could put pressure on other satellite operators. “T-Mobile may not be willing to pay more than $100 million a year,” Farrar said, referring to the carrier’s recent announcement that it was partnering with SpaceX to provide mobile phone texting services. emergency in the United States and planned to start testing the service next year. . Lynk and AST have already struck deals with carriers around the world and said they are working on others. It’s hard to imagine that Apple’s official announcement won’t impact those conversations one way or another.

This is all the more true since Globalstar does not seem interested in working only with Apple. As analyst Harold Feld points out, the company’s filing includes a list of other partners who could potentially be interested in using its terrestrial spectrum. This list includes “cable companies, old or new mobile operators, system integrators, utilities and other infrastructure operators”. (It also appears that other satellite operators are interested in this spectrum, but not through a partnership with Globalstar. On September 6, SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission asking the regulator to allow it to share spectrum in bands 53 and n53 used by Apple’s partner.)

Feld thinks the inclusion of major carriers and their competitors indicates that “Globalstar hopes this will become a popular feature.” He points out, however, that Apple’s agreement with the satellite provider gives it the right to “veto decisions that would negatively impact Globalstar’s ability to meet its obligations to Apple.” In other words, if Apple thinks a deal with another carrier would put too much pressure on the network, it could end the proposal.

This power creates an interesting regulatory situation. According to Feld, once a company has a high enough level of investment or control over a company licensed to use the spectrum, the FCC considers it to have “an attributable interest,” essentially saying it is a co-owner. So far, Feld says, Apple hasn’t reached that level — but if Apple wants to increase its investment or control of Globalstar much more, it may need to get approval from regulators.

Apple introducing satellite communications functionality to the iPhone was always going to have a big impact on the market as a whole – and more so for any company it works with to make it happen. We’ve seen it in fitness, fashion, entertainment, and other areas, and now space is joining the list. The details show just how involved Apple is now with Globalstar and its satellites. As with so many other things, it’s clearly not just about having a partner doing their own thing while providing a service.


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