connectivity

Apple's rumored satellite iPhone faces technical barriers

The feature would theoretically allow users to send messages without cell connection, but likely only in emergency
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Apple could be taking the concept of working remotely a little too literally, if the rumor mill is to be believed.

The iPhone 13 may be planning to use low earth orbit (LEO) satellites for some communications, according to TF International Securities analyst Kuo Ming-Chi, who has historically broken news about Apple developments. Bloomberg later confirmed that Apple is developing the capability.

  • According to Bloomberg, the tech is primarily meant to help users reach emergency services without needing to be connected to a cell tower.

Currently, satellite constellations are mostly relegated to niche IoT applications (e.g., transmitting water quality data from a water pump) or for broadband connectivity projects. For iPhones, LEO functionality could allow users to send texts without 4G and 5G connections—as long as a satellite is overhead.

But, but, but… Connecting iPhones to satellites and cell towers is no easy task, and the design of the iPhone might pose a challenge to the project. And if you were expecting to FaceTime your friends and family from the Yukon, don’t hold your breath.

“Satellite bandwidth is insanely expensive compared to land-based bandwidth,” Sascha Segan, lead mobile analyst at PCMag told Emerging Tech Brew. “Even in Tim Cook’s wildest dreams, these satellite links would only be transmitting tiny amounts of data—emergency messages, safety beacons, that sort of thing.”

Segan said the problem lies in the antenna and transmission power. To reach a satellite, you need a larger antenna and stronger transmitter than what is typically found in an iPhone.

  • Most cell phones transmit at around four milliwatts, he explained.
  • Meanwhile, a spot satellite communicator—a device that can ping a rescue team from the woods—transmits at 400 milliwatts, and a Garmin satellite phone transmits at 1600.

Bottom line: “Transmitting to the satellites takes a big antenna, and I don’t know where you’d put that in an iPhone body,” Segan said.—JM

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.