How Apple's iPhone 14 emergency satellite service works for users

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Apple has introduced Emergency SOS via Satellite for iPhone 14, and it's an impressive mix of both technology and new infrastructure, presented as simply as possible.




Apple says that it's taken years to get its new satellite communications service running, and it's clearly true. Launching in November, it's a major operation for Apple that did not stop with engineers finishing their designs.

Instead, to make a seamless system that helps anyone in distress, Apple had to invent new technologies -- and establish entire call centers manned by trained people.

What the user sees at first

The new Emergency SOS via Satellite is not a new Apple app, nor is it always available on iPhones. Apple recommends that if you have an emergency, you first try making a regular call to 911.

Similarly, you can go to Messages to text 911.

If you can't reach the emergency services through either method, because there is no signal, Apple will now have an option in the Phone app for emergencies. It's not clear yet whether the option will always be available, or solely when no signal is being received.

Either way, when you do have the option, it will appear at bottom right of the phone app's screen. The app will also be displaying a warning about there being "no connection," and recommending that you "try Emergency Text via Satellite."

Tap that button, and then Apple begins taking you through the process of connecting to help via satellite. Behind the scenes, it is far from a straightforward process, but Apple does make it remarkably easy, in theory.

In practice, the options Apple gives you are remarkably well thought out, but you can still be in a location where just sending one text takes minutes.

"Unlike stationary cell towers, communication satellites are hundreds of miles above the Earth and flying over 15,000 miles per hour," said Ashley Williams, manager, Satellite Modeling and Simulation at Apple. "To connect to these satellites, you need to be outside with a clear view of the sky."

"And the bandwidth is so limited that even sending a text message is a technical challenge," she said.

Apple makes it as simple as possible to locate a satellite
Apple makes it as simple as possible to locate a satellite


From the user's perspective, the problem is how to find a satellite and then correctly point the iPhone 14 at it.

"Satellites fly too high to be seen by the human eye," continued Williams. "So we created a unique user experience that shows you where to point your phone to establish a connection and stay connected as the satellite moves."

During such an emergency call, you are prompted to point your iPhone toward a satellite and there's a Compass-like on-screen guide. It's difficult to keep that connection, but once you've found the satellite, the guide helps you stay pointed at it.

We'll be talking about the physics of this, and why Apple chose this implementation, in the future.

Text messages only, no voice calls

The only communication that can be done via satellite is text messaging. Even this is more involved behind the scenes than texting is with regular carriers, and the visible upshot of this is that it takes much longer to send even short messages.

"So we created a custom short text compression algorithm to reduce the average size of messages by a factor of three," said Williams. "Thanks to his algorithm, it can take less than 15 seconds to send a message if you have a clearer view of the sky."

"[Under] other conditions such as like foliage, it may take a few minutes," she said. "And since each message can take some time, we know a standard back and forth conversation would take far too long for an emergency situation."

Rather than sending a general message calling for help, then answering the emergency responders' questions one at a time, Apple has worked to cut down how much a user has to be asked.

While connecting to the satellite and waiting as the text message goes, Apple's new service will ask you questions. Derived from working with emergency experts, the questions cover everything that a responder is likely to need to know.

By prompting a user with typical emergency response questions, the iPhone can compile the answers into one text
By prompting a user with typical emergency response questions, the iPhone can compile the answers into one text


The questions also come with the most common answers, so someone in distress can tap a button instead of trying to type.

All of the answers are gathered by the iPhone and sent in one go.

"With fewer messages to write and send you can get help quicker after a message is relayed to ground station and needs to reach the right emergency service provider," said Williams.

The human element in the background

Apple talked about all of the technology that it had to put in place for this service to exist, and it did not mention the satellite deals it had to do. Alongside all of this, though, Apple has also put in place relay centers and it has trained its own staff to man them.

The reason is that some emergency services are still not geared up to respond to text messages.

"If that emergency service provider accepts text messages, we will connect you to them directly," says Williams. "If they only accept voice calls, we have set up relay centers staffed with highly trained emergency specialists ready to get your text and call an emergency service provider on your behalf."

The service you never want to use

Like crash detection on the iPhone and Apple Watch, this emergency service feature is one that nobody would wish to need. But when you do need it, Apple's new solution is deeply worked out and remarkable.

"We believe that this service is such an essential part of the iPhone experience that will include it free for two years with iPhone 14," said Kaiann Drance, Apple's vice president of iPhone Product Marketing.

It's not yet clear what that cost will be after the two years. And, we hope that it's accessible to all, with payment after-the-fact if necessary.

Emergency SOS via Satellite will initially be available to users in the US and Canada. It launches in November 2022.

Competitors are planning satellite communications services for cell phones, such as the partnership between T-Mobile and SpaceX. However, their service will not even go into beta testing before the end of 2023, and there is no detail at all about satellite finding, or human relay centers.

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 48
    This is a feature that other handset manufacturers and Google won't easily be able to copy. Who else would set up all the infrastructure required? Carrier Tmobile might get there, but I imagine their satellite plans will work best with iPhones that have satellite chips already.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 48
    MadbumMadbum Posts: 536member
    Incredible function. Something you hope you never need but good to have. You never know when you need it!!

    I am upgrading from my 13 pro for this alone. Of course the extra battery life is good too

    also anyone saying Starlink and T-Mobile would be better etc. I use T-Mobile and love Elon but what they discussed that day was vaporware, likely 1 or 2 years away. And you can be sure T-Mobile will be requiring users to be in the most expensive plan and likely also pay per use  on top of it 
    edited September 2022 watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 48
    The communications is not with normal satellite communications, but rather part of emergency location services. I haven't heard which satellite system but assume it's Iridium. https://www.ocens.com/Iridium-9575-SOS.aspx

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 48
    avon b7avon b7 Posts: 7,823member
    narwhal said:
    This is a feature that other handset manufacturers and Google won't easily be able to copy. Who else would set up all the infrastructure required? Carrier Tmobile might get there, but I imagine their satellite plans will work best with iPhones that have satellite chips already.
    https://www.pocket-lint.com/phones/news/huawei/162557-huawei-mate-50-satellite-messaging


    That phone was scheduled for release last year but delayed after Huawei had to re-jig its supply chain after US sanctions. The satellite feature would be old news if it had released on schedule. It is said that next year things will be back to normal with the two flagship series yearly cycle. 

    I would think most of the bigger players will be onboard pretty soon. From there things will be fleshed out in terms of functionality. 
    edited September 2022
  • Reply 5 of 48
    Pretty sure it’s Globalstar. If you look at the spec for iPhone 14 they added n53 which is the 5G frequency that Globalstar added to their system. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 48
    narwhal said:
    This is a feature that other handset manufacturers and Google won't easily be able to copy. Who else would set up all the infrastructure required? Carrier Tmobile might get there, but I imagine their satellite plans will work best with iPhones that have satellite chips already.
    Why would they? The infrastructure already exists

    That Apple has incorporated simple PLB functions into a smartphone is noteworthy and laudable, but satellite SOS has been around for years. Those of us who are hikers and backcountry explorers have carried devices like the InReach, SPOT, Zoleo, etc for a while. They're small, have battery life measured in weeks, and often allow for more flexible communication (like arbitrary text messaging to any recipient, not just emergency SOS), but require their own monthly subscription, obviously. 

    It will be interesting to see what Apple ends up charging for this service after the initial two years are up. Simple PLB devices (basically a big red SOS button with GPS and satellite connectivity) run around $10 a month, give or take. Once you get into a true satellite messenger like an InReach, costs can climb from $15 to $50 a month or more. If Apple expands their services' capabilities over time to include more robust messaging, it could be a very compelling alternative. Although I personally don't know that I'd want to rely on a comparatively fragile smartphone when I'm out in the boonies. But, YMMV.

    And yes, it's worth noting that Apple went with Globalstar with its relatively small satellite constellation (and significant dead zones), versus a 100 percent coverage constellation like Iridium. That will hamper Apple's ability to expand it beyond North America (assuming they don't end up contracting with Iridium or Starlink down the line).
    edited September 2022 JP234appleinsideruserwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 48
    avon b7 said:
    narwhal said:
    This is a feature that other handset manufacturers and Google won't easily be able to copy. Who else would set up all the infrastructure required? Carrier Tmobile might get there, but I imagine their satellite plans will work best with iPhones that have satellite chips already.
    https://www.pocket-lint.com/phones/news/huawei/162557-huawei-mate-50-satellite-messaging

    That phone was scheduled for release last year but delayed after Huawei had to re-jig its supply chain after US sanctions. The satellite feature would be old news if it had released on schedule. It is said that next year things will be back to normal with the two flagship series yearly cycle. 
    Oh yes, let's blame it on US sanctions and completely ignore the global pandemic, labor issues, supply chain woes, and component shortages all over. Nope, they woulda done it if it weren't for mean ol' Uncle Sam!

    As for it having been old news if it had released on schedule -- well yeah, that's how it works for everybody. But here in our shared reality, that didn't happen.
    edited September 2022 tmaywatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 48
    The term "users" in the headline is pejorative and I thought confined to previous decades.

    "How Apple's iPhone 14 emergency satellite service works" would have been fine. 
  • Reply 9 of 48
    crowleycrowley Posts: 10,453member
    timmillea said:
    The term "users" in the headline is pejorative and I thought confined to previous decades.

    "How Apple's iPhone 14 emergency satellite service works" would have been fine. 
    In what sense is it pejorative?  
    twokatmew
  • Reply 10 of 48
    avon b7avon b7 Posts: 7,823member
    avon b7 said:
    narwhal said:
    This is a feature that other handset manufacturers and Google won't easily be able to copy. Who else would set up all the infrastructure required? Carrier Tmobile might get there, but I imagine their satellite plans will work best with iPhones that have satellite chips already.
    https://www.pocket-lint.com/phones/news/huawei/162557-huawei-mate-50-satellite-messaging

    That phone was scheduled for release last year but delayed after Huawei had to re-jig its supply chain after US sanctions. The satellite feature would be old news if it had released on schedule. It is said that next year things will be back to normal with the two flagship series yearly cycle. 
    Oh yes, let's blame it on US sanctions and completely ignore the global pandemic, labor issues, supply chain woes, and component shortages all over. Nope, they woulda done it if it weren't for mean ol' Uncle Sam!

    As for it having been old news if it had released on schedule -- well yeah, that's how it works for everybody. But here in our shared reality, that didn't happen.
    If you want to use 'blame' I suppose that is fine but it's not what I said. 

    I was simply pointing out a fact. 

    The delay in release had literally nothing to do with the pandemic, labor issues etc. 

    It was 100% due to sanctions. That is it. Plain and simple.

    Can you name any other flagship manufacturer that found itself having to do the same?

    No. Of course you can't. They all had labor issues, supply chain disruption and pandemic problems but their release schedules were not put back by a whole year.

    I'm not talking about ol' Uncle Sam in a political tone. I'm talking about supply chain re-jigging due to sanctions and the resulting delay and yes, that phone is basically last year's phone but can still hold its own on many fronts even with a 12 month delay. 


    muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 11 of 48
    I’ve always wanted a satellite capable phone just to to be free of tower restrictions and when rumors came out about the 14 having hybrid capabilities I was excited.  But now that I see that the new 14 is a very very limited satellite system, I’m less excited about it.   It seems like sat PLB and phones have been around a long time now so this isn’t bleeding edge technology- why did apple come out with such a very delimited functionality for this service rather than full satellite text and/or voice?
  • Reply 12 of 48
    I’ve always wanted a satellite capable phone just to to be free of tower restrictions and when rumors came out about the 14 having hybrid capabilities I was excited.  But now that I see that the new 14 is a very very limited satellite system, I’m less excited about it.   It seems like sat PLB and phones have been around a long time now so this isn’t bleeding edge technology- why did apple come out with such a very delimited functionality for this service rather than full satellite text and/or voice?
    Because satellite communication is bandwidth limited and power intensive. LEO constellations (like Starlink) help change those metrics a bit, but not to the extent that it would be able to serve the communication needs of tens of millions of iPhone users. A cellular tower can always have more spectrum assigned to it, and have its backhaul expanded, to serve a greater number of users. If you want to improve a satellite constellation with new technology or to serve more users faster, your only option is to launch a better satellite. That is incredibly complex and expensive. The cost/benefit is never going to support ubiquitous satellite communications over continuous improvement in the cellular network.
    muthuk_vanalingamJFC_PAFileMakerFellerwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 48
    avon b7avon b7 Posts: 7,823member
    I’ve always wanted a satellite capable phone just to to be free of tower restrictions and when rumors came out about the 14 having hybrid capabilities I was excited.  But now that I see that the new 14 is a very very limited satellite system, I’m less excited about it.   It seems like sat PLB and phones have been around a long time now so this isn’t bleeding edge technology- why did apple come out with such a very delimited functionality for this service rather than full satellite text and/or voice?
    Look at it as an extra, not a dedicated satellite phone. 
    FileMakerFeller
  • Reply 14 of 48
    MadbumMadbum Posts: 536member
    I’ve always wanted a satellite capable phone just to to be free of tower restrictions and when rumors came out about the 14 having hybrid capabilities I was excited.  But now that I see that the new 14 is a very very limited satellite system, I’m less excited about it.   It seems like sat PLB and phones have been around a long time now so this isn’t bleeding edge technology- why did apple come out with such a very delimited functionality for this service rather than full satellite text and/or voice?
    Do you know how much full voice and text with satellites would cost?

    it’s already amazing Apple is giving this out for free for 2 years for emergencies 

    just by doing this, Apple is contributing to better peoples lives . I am grateful ! Something the butt head politicians can learn from instead of trying to destroy apple with their corrupt Justice department 


    edited September 2022 JFC_PAwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 48
    mknelsonmknelson Posts: 1,128member
    neoncat said:
    I’ve always wanted a satellite capable phone just to to be free of tower restrictions and when rumors came out about the 14 having hybrid capabilities I was excited.  But now that I see that the new 14 is a very very limited satellite system, I’m less excited about it.   It seems like sat PLB and phones have been around a long time now so this isn’t bleeding edge technology- why did apple come out with such a very delimited functionality for this service rather than full satellite text and/or voice?
    Because satellite communication is bandwidth limited and power intensive. LEO constellations (like Starlink) help change those metrics a bit, but not to the extent that it would be able to serve the communication needs of tens of millions of iPhone users. A cellular tower can always have more spectrum assigned to it, and have its backhaul expanded, to serve a greater number of users. If you want to improve a satellite constellation with new technology or to serve more users faster, your only option is to launch a better satellite. That is incredibly complex and expensive. The cost/benefit is never going to support ubiquitous satellite communications over continuous improvement in the cellular network.
    Power and antenna size considerations are still a factor with Starlink. Look at the size of the Starlink antennas (and how Cats use them to warm up in cool weather). Those are some sort of phased array to track the satellites as they whiz past.

    Traditional satellite phones have large external antennas and still aren't terribly reliable.
    neoncatentropysFileMakerFellerwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 48
    There are lots of questions that this service raises. For example, not all satellites are in polar orbits, so there may be a maximum latitude that Apple's service can cover. And there could be some latitudes that get better coverage than others.
    appleinsideruserwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 48
    There are lots of questions that this service raises. For example, not all satellites are in polar orbits, so there may be a maximum latitude that Apple's service can cover. And there could be some latitudes that get better coverage than others.
    I was curious about this too given how limited Globalstar's constellation is. I wish I could find the reference again, but I'm pretty certain Apple advises that the service won't work reliably above the 62nd parallel, which would include all of northern Canada, and most of Alaska. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 48
    JFC_PAJFC_PA Posts: 934member
    There are lots of questions that this service raises. For example, not all satellites are in polar orbits, so there may be a maximum latitude that Apple's service can cover. And there could be some latitudes that get better coverage than others.
    You could check GlobalStar for coverage as it’s their satellites being signaled. 

    Oh one thing from further above? FCC certified PLBs have no monthly service charge, you simply buy the device and register it with NOAA. It’s a worldwide government safety system, like the Coast Guard. 

    edited September 2022 applebynatureFileMakerFellerwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 48
    mknelson said:
    neoncat said:
    I’ve always wanted a satellite capable phone just to to be free of tower restrictions and when rumors came out about the 14 having hybrid capabilities I was excited.  But now that I see that the new 14 is a very very limited satellite system, I’m less excited about it.   It seems like sat PLB and phones have been around a long time now so this isn’t bleeding edge technology- why did apple come out with such a very delimited functionality for this service rather than full satellite text and/or voice?
    Because satellite communication is bandwidth limited and power intensive. LEO constellations (like Starlink) help change those metrics a bit, but not to the extent that it would be able to serve the communication needs of tens of millions of iPhone users. A cellular tower can always have more spectrum assigned to it, and have its backhaul expanded, to serve a greater number of users. If you want to improve a satellite constellation with new technology or to serve more users faster, your only option is to launch a better satellite. That is incredibly complex and expensive. The cost/benefit is never going to support ubiquitous satellite communications over continuous improvement in the cellular network.
    Power and antenna size considerations are still a factor with Starlink. Look at the size of the Starlink antennas (and how Cats use them to warm up in cool weather). Those are some sort of phased array to track the satellites as they whiz past.

    Traditional satellite phones have large external antennas and still aren't terribly reliable.
    Absolutely. I was merely saying that Starlink's approach—tons of smaller, cheaper satellites flying lower, versus fewer, larger satellites flying much higher—does at least tweak the economics of evolving the service technologically over time.
    entropyswatto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 48
    JFC_PA said:
    There are lots of questions that this service raises. For example, not all satellites are in polar orbits, so there may be a maximum latitude that Apple's service can cover. And there could be some latitudes that get better coverage than others.
    You could check GlobalStar for coverage as it’s their satellites being signaled. 

    Oh one thing from further above? FCC certified PLBs have no monthly service charge, you simply buy the device and register it with NOAA. It’s a worldwide government safety system, like the Coast Guard. 

    My bad, I know I said earlier that they cost something like $10 a month. I think as I was typing out my message I was confusing a couple different types of satellite communicators I have more experience with. I appreciate the clarification that pure PLBs have different cost structures. 
    watto_cobra
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