The Future of Satellite Phone Communications

Apple unveiled new iPhones with a number of intriguing new features last week. When a cellular tower is out of reach, one function lets you know if you’ve been in an accident (provided your phone can make the connection), while another links your phone to a satellite in a very limited fashion.

A service that is not yet available but is being promoted by Starlink and T-Mobile should make Apple’s satellite service appear to have emerged from the modem era. All of them come after AST SpaceMobile, which will launch its first 4G/5G satellite next year to start offering service.

This week, let’s discuss the potential of satellite cellular services. We’ll finish up with my pick for the week, an inexpensive set of active noise-canceling headphones that might be ideal for people who travel a lot and need to sleep with them on.

Apple Fills a Need

The first of these new generation services to launch will be Apple’s extremely constrained Emergency SOS via satellite service. One major benefit of it is that it will function well before the others reach a critical mass.

The limits of the Apple service only become an issue for Apple if the other services reach a critical mass because if you are in the middle of nowhere and in need of assistance, having a service that doesn’t yet function will be of little use to you. Expect that around 2025 or thereabouts.

This service only functions in open spaces with a clear line of sight to the sky, and I anticipate that occasionally you may need to move around a little to get a good signal. If you become trapped in a cave, fall into a ravine, or are in a bunker, it won’t function.

Still, a lot of people wind up stranded in the area where I reside every year. They are unaware that the weather can rapidly change here, and that if you are far from your car or civilization at the time in just shorts and a T-shirt, you will require rescue or you risk losing anything from a few fingers to your life.

Through menus, the app leverages the phone’s intelligence to shrink the message and deliver it to a helpful person after assisting you in finding a satellite. However, for this to function, you may need to wait anywhere from 15 seconds to several minutes to establish a clear line of sight to the satellite. Thus, you can still be out of luck if you have a broken limb or are otherwise crippled.

For this functionality, Apple and Globalstar are collaborating. Users of the iPhone 14, the only device to originally support this feature, will receive two years of this service at no cost. The first offering will surely get better by then, and there might even be alternatives.

The service is better than nothing, and for the time being, that is pretty much your only option unless you want to spend a lot of money on a pricey Iridium (or other satellite) phone. Iridium’s service is still more expensive than conventional cellular even though it is far less expensive than I remember it being.

Starlink and T-Mobile

Elon Musk gets an idea every minute, and a surprising number of them are excellent. Despite the fact that I worked with a man like Musk, I am aware of how difficult it is to work for or with someone of his calibre since, in general, he cannot distinguish between excellent and bad ideas.

Having said that, it is intriguing to consider using the Starlink satellites as a phone system. However, considering that Starlink currently has capacity problems, this service might make Starlink less desirable if it cuts bandwidth for current Starlink customers, which it almost certainly will.

Additionally, Musk frequently overpromises and underdelivers, misses deadlines for delivery, and causes a sizable amount of issues for his enterprises. However, SpaceX is the most affordable launch system now in use, is remarkably dependable, and the majority of Starlink reports I’ve seen have been remarkably excellent.

Personally, I would have held out on launching a new service on the network until Starlink was profitable and operating at scale, but that is not Musk’s style. His large, hazardous ventures up until this point have largely paid off. He and his businesses are still just one critical error away from a calamity, though. Considering how complicated his businesses are, it seems practically guaranteed that he will ultimately run into a bad wall.

The service will first be more advanced than Apple’s satellite offering, but it won’t be genuine cellular, and it will require an upgrade to the Starlink satellites. In places where there is a sufficient number of the new satellites, full operation is anticipated by the following year. The beta of this service is rumoured for late 2023. T-Mobile and Starlink are in an intriguing position to be the first to succeed with a satellite-based smartphone solution if it doesn’t achieve critical mass.

AST SpaceMobile

With collaborations with organisations like Vodafone and AT&T, AST SpaceMobile, which is scheduled to launch its low earth satellite in 2023, has a clear road for initial global coverage. To reach critical mass, they will require between 45 and 65 satellites, and this should happen before the end of 2025, providing there are no significant market changes or the advent of a superior rival technology.

Once they reach critical mass, the company, which is covered in 2,400 patents, should be able to offer respectable 4G and 5G coverage. Your phone will function where it presently doesn’t since the service will be handled similarly to overseas travel or on-plane service for locations where there are cellular alternatives. Or as a main means of communication for persons living in distant areas without cellphone service, such as on land or at sea.

It would undoubtedly be a step forward from ship-to-shore and the majority of radio systems for law enforcement and first responders operating in regions with either no cellular service or degraded cellular service. The constraints of the other two services won’t apply to AST SpaceMobile’s service, which will function similarly to ordinary cellular in that it will support both voice and data. However, it will always fall short of terrestrial cellular services in terms of quality and data speed.

This service ought to be better than what you currently receive on a flight and ought to operate on aeroplanes as well. Unlike aeroplanes, which only support data at the moment, it will support both speech and data (people have been against getting cellular coverage on planes for fear that those using it would drive them crazy with loud constant phone calls).

Wrapping Up

With Apple’s announcement last week, we have entered the era of consumer satellite cellular communications, when it may soon be possible to request assistance from any location in the world, regardless of the location of the nearest cell tower.

This might be quite helpful for those who get into difficulty or become lost in isolated regions and offer some degree of piece of mind to worried parents.

Apple is only the start. The data capacity promised by companies like Starlink and T-Mobile is significantly superior to Apple’s, and AST SpaceMobile advertises a global 4/5G cellular service that combines voice and data in the same approximate timeframe.

The concept of being out of service could become extinct by the second half of this decade, just as the requirement to locate a phone booth did in the 1990s. And that, my friends, is something to anticipate.

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