How SpaceX and Apple’s satellite connections compare

At the Far Out event, Apple announced that satellite connectivity will be available on the iPhone 14. But a few weeks earlier, SpaceX and T-Mobile announced that they would bring satellite connectivity to virtually every 5G phone. So how do the two services compare, is one better than the other, and should it influence your decision on which phone to use?

Mobile phone satellite communications

Satellite communication is difficult. There’s a reason satellite internet services like Starlink use a large terminal on the ground and large antennas in space to connect to them. SpaceX and Apple have taken very different approaches to offering satellite connectivity. Thanks to the joint service, SpaceX and T-Mobile will use hundreds of huge antennas in space to send and receive signals from standard phones using a regular 5G modem. This requires more advanced infrastructure in space, but has the advantage of allowing you to use your existing mobile phone.

Apple doesn’t have the same position in space flight as T-Mobile thanks to a partnership with SpaceX, but Apple has partnered with Globalstar. Globalstar has existing satellites in orbit which users can connect to using the new directional antenna in the iPhone 14 line. This requires the user to point the phone at a specific satellite in order to connect.

Video: Comparison of SpaceX and Apple’s satellite telephony services

While SpaceX and Apple are billing their services as saving lives in extreme rural areas, SpaceX will be much more helpful to the average consumer against a potentially life-threatening situation. When available, the company will allow standard text messaging over satellite connections. They hope to expand over time to allow phone calls as well.

Meanwhile, Apple has set up satellite communications solely as a fallback form of communication. You can’t make standard phone calls or SMS, but rather after you fail to connect to emergency services due to a lack of connection, you will get the option to send an emergency SMS via satellite. You answer a few simple on-screen questions to help describe your situation, then messages along with your medical ID, emergency contacts, location, and phone battery percentage will be shared with your local emergency help center. If the local call center in your location doesn’t support SMS, Apple will have call centers that will make a voice call for you. Apple will also support updating your Location on Finder over a satellite connection.

Apple Emergency SOS via satellite in use.

Service availability

An emergency SOS signal via satellite will be made available by updating iOS 16 on the iPhone 14 line in November 2022. By comparison, Elon Musk said during the announcement that the earliest version of their service would be launched “at the end of 2023”. This is likely an optimistic schedule and will take some time to further improve the service.

Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite is only available in the United States (including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) and Canada. SpaceX and T-Mobile will be limited to the continental United States and Hawaii, and parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters. At the launch, SpaceX and T-Mobile seemed eager to work with other operators around the world to use some of their spectrum to expand connectivity further. If further partnerships are established, this coverage area may still expand to new countries. Likewise, Apple appears to be interested in rapidly expanding service locations beyond North America.

Globalstar satellite image that will provide Apple's emergency SOS via satellite
Render of Globalstar satellites over Earth.

To offer its satellite services, Apple has partnered with Globalstar, a company operating a constellation of 24 satellites in low orbit for satellite phones and low-speed data connections. Their satellites essentially retransmit the signal they receive for the station on earth to receive it.

Like “bent pipes” or mirrors in the sky, Globalstar satellites pick up signals from over 80% of the Earth’s surface. Our satellites transmit customer signals via CDMA technology to antennas at the appropriate terrestrial gateway, and the signals are then routed through local networks.

T-Mobile and SpaceX will use the company’s second-generation Starlink satellites; These satellites will be much larger and will be launched using the company’s Starship rocket from next year. This rocket has yet to enter orbit and it is necessary to launch larger V2 satellites that would not fit in with the company’s Falcon 9 workhorse rocket. These V2 satellites will have additional antennas of almost 25 square meters specially designed to connect to small 5G cell phones with lower power on the ground. While Starlink is known to offer high-speed connections in remote areas, that won’t be the case for the cellular connection they offer, as during the presentation, Musk said that they would only have two to four megabits of bandwidth for each cellular area, which could have thousands in it. people.

In the long term, SpaceX has the potential to expand in even more remote locations, even away from ground stations. These satellites will have laser-based communication with each other, which will allow the satellites to transmit information to each other without having to repeat it directly back to the earth station. This signal can then “hop” between satellites before reaching one with a connection to the earth station.

Rendering of the SpaceX Starlink V2 implementation from the Starship ship
SpaceX Render showing Starlink V2 being deployed from a spacecraft.

Competition?

It is difficult for me to consider the SpaceX and T-Mobile offer as “competition” for Apple – or vice versa. With how long it will take for SpaceX connectivity to go online, it shouldn’t impact anyone’s purchasing decisions right now. And in the long run, choosing an iPhone won’t stop someone from joining the T-Mobile network to take advantage of a partnership with SpaceX, so in theory someone could have both SpaceX satellite connectivity and Apple’s emergency SOS via satellite.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has even teased a few “promising conversations” with Apple on Twitter, but exactly how any partnership between SpaceX and Apple will work remains to be seen. Either way, this is a promising time for connectivity because soon, instead of requiring a special satellite phone, any iPhone 14 user can reach for help from anywhere in the US, and within a year or two, it should be possible from anywhere. cell.

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