Last week, the tech media went wild with a story about an iPhone that could connect to satellites. For some reason, this story struck a chord – we saw all kinds of crazy speculation on social media, were inundated with inbound requests from investors and numerous industry chat circles spinning around. But when we finally got around to reading the story that prompted all this in Bloomberg, and the analyst report from TF International that was the ultimate source of the rumor, we found a different story.
Satellite telephones hold this odd appeal for many people. Our guess is that this reflects frustration with poor cell phone coverage rather than a desire to take an iPhone off the grid into the jungles and deserts. Read some of the coverage and posts about Space X’s Starlink and you can get the tone of this fever dream.
But satellite phones are not new, they have been around for decades. In the last tech Bubble in the 1990’s there were several companies that promised phones that work anywhere. Iridium is probably the best known of these, largely by dint of it being the only one to survive. The problem these networks all encountered was that the cost of cell phones and cell phone coverage fell so quickly that soon almost everywhere that people wanted to communicate by phone they could get cell phone signal. There are still places where satellite phone coverage is needed, but these tend to be specialized – mines, oil rigs, humanitarian relief sites, etc. – so a tiny commercial opportunity.
Technologically there is no reason the iPhone could not be made satellite compatible. All it would require is the phone double in thickness and have a fold-up antenna. Of course, almost no one would want to buy this marvelous technical beast. There is this small problem of the laws of physics. Cell phones need to connect to base stations, and are typically less than a mile away from those base stations. With a high enough tower and not a lot of buildings in between that range can extend to a few miles. Beyond that the radio signals attenuate (lose strength), so much that the signal gets lost. Extending the range requires two things. First, the phone itself needs more power to transmit a strong enough signal to go further, and it needs a very sensitive RF Chain of chips in the phone to be able to receive weaker signals from far away. Most satellites are over a 100 miles up, Starlink’s orbiters for instance are something like 350 miles up. You need a pretty powerful signal and highly sensitive RF front-end to handle that, and that means a larger phone. Starlink itself targets fixed applications (i.e. a unit for the home) which means it has access to power and size is not really an issue.
That being said, none of this is what Apple is rumored to be working on. Instead, they seem to building an emergency messaging system that is powered by satellite networks for situations where the cell network is down. The difference being that the amount of data is incredibly small – basic text messages. We spoke to a few RF experts and the consensus seems to be that this may be technically feasible. It probably is brutal on battery life, but it might work. Apple might be able to pull this off. We have written before how they are likely working on proprietary communications methods for their rumored mobile baseband, and this would fall into that category.
There is another, simpler alternative, Apple may just be adding another wireless carrier to networks that can run iPhones. Here, the iPhone would not communicate with satellites, only with ground stations which then communicate to the rest of the world (i.e. backhaul) via satellite. This requires no changes to hardware, just a software update to work with another operator. This is a much simpler explanation, albeit a much less exciting one.
Photo Credit: The Apple Satellite Phone, Digits to Dollars.