What is satellite communication on smartphones?

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Last year, on September 6, it was Huawei, not Apple, that first introduced satellite communications in a mass-market smartphone. A day later, on September 7, the Cupertino company also introduced this new technology in the iPhone 14 series. Satellite communication allows the phone to connect to a low-orbiting satellite and send SOS messages even when there is no cellular signal reception.

The vital satellite communication feature will soon be available on more phones. Google has made it compatible with Android 14, and there are rumors that Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi will add it to their devices via Qualcomm. Clearly, satellite connectivity on phones could be the next big thing, so it’s important to know what it is and how it works.

What is satellite connectivity in modern phones?

If you’re like us, you’ve probably seen old satellite phones with long antennas sticking out of their heads. Unlike a regular cell phone, a satellite phone connects to other phones or the telephone network using radio communications via satellites orbiting the Earth, rather than through cellular land stations. This allows them to be useful even in the most remote locations.

Carrying a satellite phone in your pocket is not an option for most of us, so manufacturers are pushing this technology into modern smartphones, and yes, without visible antennas. However, the current technology only allows you to send text messages via satellite, but not to make calls. In addition, there are certain hardware requirements to integrate this feature into smartphones. As Mishaal Rahman points out, the feature will depend on the modem hardware of the device you are using.

If you’re wondering how this feature can help you, here’s an example: Imagine you’re adventurous and planning a trip to a remote location in the world. You get there and find yourself out of range of cell towers. God forbid, you get into an emergency situation and can’t contact anyone. Satellite connectivity in your phone can solve this problem by providing connectivity even when the terrestrial network is unavailable. We’ve already heard of numerous cases where SOS satellite technology has saved lives, the most recent being a family who used this feature to escape the wildfires in Hawaii.

How does satellite communication work on smartphones?

To support satellite communications, smartphone manufacturers must tightly integrate hardware and software. Apple’s iPhone 14 and 14 Pro models have hardware components tightly integrated with software that allows the antennas to connect directly to the satellite.

Apple has partnered with Globalstar, a satellite communications company that operates a constellation of 48 low-orbit satellites. To send emergency messages via satellite, Apple has developed a unique compression algorithm that reduces text messages to one-third of their original size. The emergency message is received by one of Globalstar’s satellites in low Earth orbit, which travels at approximately 16,000 mph. The satellite then transmits the message to ground stations located at key locations around the world.

Apple iPhone 14 satellite connectivity

Huawei’s Mate 50 and Mate 50 Pro smartphones can send short texts and use navigation thanks to China’s global BeiDou satellite network. However, according to Huawei’s description of the system, Mate 50 phones can only send texts via satellite, not receive them.

It is possible that future phones will implement this technology differently. Perhaps they will even have voice and data communication.

What does the future hold?

Many Android brands may introduce this feature in their upcoming flagship phones. Qualcomm announced at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) that phone manufacturers including Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, Motorola, Nothing, and Honor are ready to introduce satellite communications capabilities into their phones. However, no specific details are available at the moment.

Qualcomm unveiled its Snapdragon Satellite technology in partnership with satellite provider Iridium at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January. It will allow Android smartphones to send two-way text messages and access other messaging apps via satellites in emergencies, similar to what we’ve seen on the iPhone.

In addition, a recent report suggests that Google is looking to add satellite communications to Messages (as reported by Mishaal Rahman). The search giant seems to be adding the user interface (UI) elements needed to send emergency SOS messages via satellite to its Messages app. This should come as no surprise, as Google has already announced that Android 14 will support satellite communications.

T-Mobile also announced its partnership with SpaceX to provide satellite connectivity on smartphones via Starlink satellites. MediaTek also joined the fray in February 2023 and demonstrated two chipsets that enable two-way satellite communications on smartphones. And let’s not forget about the rumors about satellite communications in Samsung’s future flagships that have been circulating since last year.

Satellite connectivity in phones is a big step forward

There is no doubt that satellite connectivity on smartphones can have a significant impact on our lives. The promise of continuous, long-range communication can be a game changer, especially in life-threatening situations. Clearly, this makes satellite connectivity on smartphones not just a luxury, but a possible life saver.

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