Ever heard of satellite phones? The ones that the military use in remote areas? The late 1980s to early 1990s are the time that the first satellite phones came into use, and since then satellite phones are expensive and are usually out of reach for us civilians even if we can afford them. But in recent years talks and rumors of making modern smartphones capable of satellite connectivity.
But 2022 is the year that satellite connectivity became a general service for the public, but there’s a catch! Today we’ll talk about everything you need to know about satellite connectivity including how it works, its capabilities and limitations, its benefits and downsides, and what’s coming in the future. Let’s start!
Satellite Connectivity Started as a Rumor About Qualcomm
In 2021-2022, there is a bunch of hearsay about Qualcomm making a chip that can enable a phone to communicate with satellites. And guess what? A few days ago at the time of writing this, Qualcomm just showed it off at CES 2023.
Since Qualcomm is one of the leading companies when it comes to smartphone chips, you can expect to have the feature on premium devices in the near future, and according to Qualcomm, they even plan to implement the feature on mid to lower-tier chips allowing virtually everyone to be able to use satellite-based communications in the next 5-10 years.
New Smartphones Will Be Released With Satellite Connectivity
The Qualcomm rumors weren’t really exciting at all, I mean, most people don’t even know what to do with that information. But when the iPhone 14 was released with satellite connectivity (with a Qualcomm modem too apparently), suddenly, satellite connectivity became the talk of the town. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? It’s an actual piece of working tech that you can buy right now, instead of news and rumors.
The best part about it is you can already try it out as it’s currently on a free trial for users in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK. But you have to remember, this feature isn’t fully implemented yet and you’ll only be able to use it for sending texts to emergency services via satellite, but hey, it’s still better than nothing if you got lost or hurt in the wilderness.
How Does All This Work?
So now you’re caught up on how satellite connectivity came to fruition on new smartphones, how does it all work?
Let’s start with the satellites, they use existing technology and aren’t anything super new, I mean, we already use satellites for our current cellular networks, it’s just being used in a way that we haven’t seen before. The satellites are placed around the earth, and in the iPhone’s case, the iPhone tracks available satellites, and once the phone finds a satellite to connect to, the satellite then connects to the phone allowing for data transmission to happen.
The satellite then transmits the data it acquired from your phone and sends it down to an operator back on Earth which will then be able to send emergency services to your location.
Wait, how does it know your location? GPS of course! You have to remember, GPS also works using satellites and as long as you have a clear view of the sky, your phone will know where you are, and in the iPhone’s Emergency SOS feature, not only does it send your location automatically, but Apple also made prompt that’ll ask you a few questions for emergency services to know how will they respond.
Once you sent your initial emergency message, you can still use the satellite connection to continue texting emergency services for additional info or inquiries.
And it’s just that simple! So you see, the phones didn’t need to make a whole lot of new tech since the satellites has to do most of the work.
Apple made the satellite connectivity feature work on iPhone through a huge investment in Globalstar, one of the leading global satellite services.
But for the rest of the tech industry, one of the leading services that they’re planning to be connected through is the T-Mobile and SpaceX collaboration, with T-Mobile offering the service and SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network to make it work.
The whole thing with satellite connectivity is easy to explain, but the hardest part with all this is putting up satellites in orbit. Spaceships and rockets are not only expensive by themselves, but it’s also expensive to launch and most of them are for one-time use only. That is until SpaceX came along! As of now, SpaceX is still in development for their Starship which is being developed to be a fully reusable spacecraft, that’ll then bring all these satellites into orbit.
Once SpaceX’s Starship is finished, their satellite network, Starlink, will suddenly improve with a lot of new satellites, and only then will satellite connectivity for the masses should be feasible.
How Will This Impact Us?
Imagine having a phone that can access the Internet anywhere in the world, even in remote locations. Imagine never having to worry about whether or not you have service again. This is what satellite connectivity on phones means for you and it’s here to stay!
But I have to say, as of now, it has very limited applications since while everything is working, the amount of satellites in orbit is just too few as of now.
Although as time goes by and as more satellites are put in orbit, more things can be done using satellite connectivity. Here are some examples to give you an idea:
Emergency services will be able to use satellite connectivity to reach people in the most remote parts of the world.
As you already know, this is now working today with Apple taking the lead with their iPhone 14 lineup.
But in the future, we should be able to access emergency services not just by text but also by call or even video call!
Once satellite networks are developed, they’ll become more reliable, availability-wise, than ground-based cellular networks. Don’t get me wrong, ground-based networks are still faster, but there is a great sense of confidence with satellite connectivity knowing you can still communicate with people wherever you are especially if something bad happened.
Dangers of Satellite Phones
No, I’m not talking about satellite waves melting our brains!
I’m talking about the possible use of satellite phones in terrorism, black markets, or other crime-related activities since as of now, satellite phones are pretty secure and hard to intercept.
And I think we don’t have to worry about that that much. With the development of satellite networks, the connections will be more secure, yes, but it’ll be easier to track satellite phones compared to traditional phones since a satellite can literally pinpoint it from space! And with infrastructures being built by service providers, soon they’ll be able to monitor and intercept suspicious activities.
The Biggest Problem With Satellite Phones
Satellite phones send signals up hundreds or even thousands of miles into space, and once the satellite receives it, it’ll send it back down to a ground station to a recipient, and when the receiver replies to a message, it’ll make the long trip back. The sheer distance that a satellite phone’s signal travels just to get to a recipient is enough to give it a noticeable lag when on voice calls.
That is the biggest problem with satellite phones and smartphones with satellite connections are no exception. A possible way to solve this in the future is by using more and more satellites and also placing them in low orbit.
What’s the Future for Satellite Connectivity?
The future of satellite connectivity looks extremely promising, and phones are just the beginning—laptops, tablets, and other devices will surely follow to be able to use satellite services. But, other than phones and mobile devices, I think satellite connectivity will also be extremely useful on cars and other vehicles, just imagine having satellite internet everywhere you go! But of course, in the next few years, you’ll probably only be able to use it for emergency calls as well. We will have to wait for a decade or two before we get full, high-speed, and reliable satellite internet.
It’s definitely going to be a while before we can get full and reliable satellite internet. But I think that it has the potential to make our lives easier and more convenient, so I’m looking forward to that day when we finally get reliable satellite connectivity in our phones.
But what do you think? Is it going to be useful or are people wasting money on these? Either way, make sure to shoot your opinions or messages down in the comments below!