Why will your smartphone soon become a “satphone”?

Posted January 18, 2023, 1:29 p.mUpdated January 18, 2023 at 1:42 p.m.

Stranded in the middle of the mountains while hiking or in a white zone after a car accident? You should soon be able to point your smartphone at the sky and send an emergency message via satellite to contact emergency services.

This “satphone” feature (a contraction of “satellite” and “smartphone”) will be available on Android phones from spring 2023, and probably on some connected watches and cars. In practice, this will allow emergency services to be sent messages via the satellite network, even in areas without 5G or mobile networks.

On the occasion of CES in Las Vegas, chip designer Qualcomm announced a partnership with the Iridium satellite network to offer the service to next-generation high-end smartphones equipped with Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chips. manufacturers to enable this feature in their products. But it would be surprising if the Galaxy S23 missed this opportunity,” Forrester’s senior analyst Thomas Husson predicts.

A service similar to Apple service

Samsung would really be interested in positioning itself in this niche, iPhone owners already benefit from this service. In September of last year, Apple created an event by announcing that the new iPhone 14 could receive signals from Earth satellites. And therefore, in case of emergency, send SMS and exact location of the user.

Where Apple signed with American Globalstar, Qualcomm approached Iridium. According to the company’s statement, its constellation of 66 satellites covers every point on Earth and can reach a cell phone within seconds.

As for who will pay for the messages, “the cost of satellite messaging and related services will depend on equipment manufacturers and service providers and how they offer the service,” Qualcomm’s Francesco Grilli said. to The Verge.

By sending an SOS to emergency services that includes the customer’s latitude/longitude, initially limited to emergencies, the proposal could make SMS and calls possible in a few years, according to Qualcomm. This will depend on the contracts with the phone operator and the rates agreed with Iridium.

“It will take time to unravel,” Thomas Husson said. Operators must accept this, then it will be the turn of the regulators in each country. In some areas, such as India or China, where satellite phones are not allowed, this can be complicated. Finally, the companies responsible for the aid must also be able to receive and transmit this message. »

For smartphone manufacturers, this new premium feature should be important. The expert believes that “even if we stay with a single utility service, it gives the consumer a bit of a ‘wow’ effect. In countries where telecommunication operators do not intend to cover all white areas, such as the USA or Australia, satellite can be a real alternative. The big winners of this new “space race” will be the satellite operators themselves.

An opportunity for satellite operators

While launching and maintaining a satellite network can easily cost billions of dollars, reaching a fraction of the world’s more than 6 billion active smartphones would be a promising way to diversify revenue for companies like Iridium, Globalstar and Inmarsat, which have so far specialized in the field. premium mobile satellite subscriptions – used in remote areas or disaster areas – or data transmission to ships or vehicles at sea.

Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX also wants to get its share of this new market. Last August, Starlink announced a partnership with T-Mobile to adapt its service to the American carrier’s network. The first tests should be started by the end of the year. Finally, smartphone maker Huawei announced that its new mobile phones can send one-way instant messages through China’s Beidou system.

It would be a nice revenge against history for the satellite operators. As the Wall Street Journal notes, when cell phones began to gain popularity in the late 1980s, it was unclear whether the network that would carry the calls would be terrestrial or satellite.

In 1990, Motorola made a bet on satellite by launching the Iridium constellation. But with the cost of the service piling up in the face of a landline network several years away from deployment (big phones costing over $3,000, billed up to $7 per minute of talk, etc.), Iridium s declared bankruptcy less than a year later. Its rival Globalstar suffered the same fate soon after. The two companies have since managed to recover by revising their mobile ambitions. But the tide may soon turn again.

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