Apple’s Emergency SOS link puts it into the satellite fight with SpaceX and more

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After Apple’s announcement that the iPhone 14 and 14 Pro can send messages via satellite in emergency situations, it’s becoming clear that the company hasn’t just introduced a new feature. In typical fashion, it’s also practically overnight become a key player in a new industry by getting heavily involved with satellite communications by adding Emergency SOS via satellite.

Apple has partnered with Globalstar for its satellite operations, and it plans on using the company’s 24-satellite constellation to run its service, confirming the long-running rumors about its plans for the Band 53 / n53 communications. In practice, this means that Apple has joined the litany of companies attempting to “eliminate dead zones,” as T-Mobile put it when it announced a partnership with SpaceX last month to create its own emergency communications service. Like that service, Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite will initially only be available in the US and Canada. (Even there, there are a few 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 how big a physical, financial, and regulatory endeavor launching satellites into space is, there’s a surprising number of players in the field. One company called Lynk Global is attempting to build a worldwide emergency communications network that works with unmodified phones, and it claims that it became the first to send a text from space during 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 is planning on deploying a test satellite by the end of this week. Amazon’s even involved with its Project Kuiper, but so far the agreements we’ve heard about for that system involved beaming internet to cell towers rather than directly to phones.

During the “Far Out” iPhone 14 launch event on Wednesday, Apple made it clear that it’s going to be involved with the satellite emergency response system. “We’ve set up relay centers staffed with highly-trained emergency specialists ready to get your texts and call an emergency service provider on your behalf,” said Ashley Williams, the company’s manager of satellite modeling and simulation. And while the company hinted it was involved in “infrastructure innovation” for the feature over the past few years, that doesn’t quite capture the scale of its investment.

According to a report from Reuters, Apple is putting $450 million toward satellite infrastructure, with most of that investment going to Globalstar. Apple also agreed to pay for 95 percent of the costs for new satellites associated with the feature, according to an SEC filing.

Image of a satellite floating in space above the earth

Apple showed off a few animations of satellites during its presentation — a picture of the type of thing it’s paying for.
Image: Apple

Based on Globalstar’s revenue estimates in the filing, Tim Farrar, an analyst at satellite and telecom-focused consulting and research firm Telecom, Media and Finance Associates, said that he expects those satellites to cost Apple up to $50 million by 2026. Farrar also noted that Apple seems to be paying a “relatively low price” for the service. “Globalstar had revenues of $124 million last year. This is scheduled to go up to $185-$230 million in 2023,” he said, saying that indicated Apple would be paying around $110 million to Globalstar next year. Apple has announced the service will be free to users for the first two years but hasn’t said how much it’ll cost after that.

That price could put pressure on other satellite operators. “T-Mobile might not be willing to pay more than $100 million per year,” Farrar said, referring to the carrier’s recent announcement that it was partnering with SpaceX to provide emergency text services in the US and planned to start testing the service next year. Lynk and AST already have some agreements in place with carriers around the world and have said they’re working on others — it’s hard to imagine that Apple’s official announcement won’t impact those conversations in some way.

That’s especially true given that Globalstar doesn’t seem interested in working solely with Apple. As analyst Harold Feld points out, the company’s filing includes a list of other partners that could potentially be interested in using its terrestrial spectrum. That list includes “cable companies, legacy or upstart wireless carriers, system integrators, utilities and other infrastructure operators.” (It also seems like other satellite operators are interested in that spectrum but not through a partnership with Globalstar. On September 6th, SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission asking the regulator to allow it to share the Band 53 and n53 spectrum that Apple’s partner uses.)

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

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

Apple introducing a satellite communications feature to the iPhone was always going to have a big impact on the market as a whole — and even more so for any company it works with to make that 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 now is with Globalstar and its satellites. Like with so many other things, it clearly isn’t content to just have a partner that does its own thing while providing a service.

Correction September 8th, 5:18PM ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Emergency SOS via satellite will only be available in the US. It’ll also be available in Canada. We regret the error.

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