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Satellite mode on iPhone 13: What does it mean?


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Is it true that iPhone 13 will feature ‘satellite mode’? And what does that mean?

Apple’s upcoming announcements of several new devices, including the iPhone 13 and Watch Series 7, have spawned online rumours about the devices. 

Recent leaks suggest watches will have unique displays and that smartphones may have support for satellite calls – and that last one has been “shaking” the internet.

Several reports suggest that the company has been studying this kind of technology for a few years already, with Bloomberg stating that as recently as 2019, it had already examined how to incorporate this into iPhones. Now, however, Ming-Chi Kuo, highly regarded as a leading analyst for Apple, claims that the company will finally incorporate this feature into its smartphones.

If this is true, then the new iPhone 13 series will come equipped with a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite communication mode.

Thus, Apple’s new smartphones will be able to send messages and make calls via these satellites, even when they are outside the range of a 3G, 4G, or 5G network.

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To do so, Apple would use a custom version of Qualcomm’s X60 modem to support satellite bands 53 and n53. While this could result in higher battery consumption, it should probably be a feature that can be turned on and off just like WiFi and mobile internet networks.

There is one important detail missing from this rumour: whether calls and messages will be handled through iMessage and FaceTime, with the manufacturer proxying satellite communications to regular cell towers.

Another important point about this is whether it will be free or if there will be some kind of fee for using it.

However, the latest reports indicate that Apple would only implement this feature for emergency calls and messages; thus, Apple isn’t turning its new devices into satellite phones, and instead are planning to develop at least two new emergency-related features reliant on satellite networks. 

If these rumours are true, their availability is still restricted by satellite location and reach. They might not work for some regions, and in some cases, users may have to walk outdoors in a certain direction to where their iPhone can connect to a satellite.

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When it comes to Apple rumours, Ming-Chi Kuo is usually pretty reliable, and if what he says about the satellite connection for the Apple smartphone is true, it could make the iPhone 13 the first smartphone to have this feature…

However, there are also indicators that may not happen – it may all be due to Globalstar, a company that offers mobile satellite voice and data services.

The “simplest scenario,” according to Kuo, would be Globalstar partnering with local providers so customers would be able to use satellite communication on their iPhone 13.

One of the companies providing low orbit satellite connectivity is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, with its Starlink internet service. It has 1,500 satellites in orbit and 100,000 customers.

Amazon is also working on Project Kuiper, whose first internet satellites are scheduled to launch this year. Hughesnet and OneWeb have partnered up to compete with Starlink, and Immarsat promises a space network that connects to a terrestrial 5G.

However, to communicate across the Ka/Ku spectrum with low orbit satellites, you need to use high-powered antennas – it’s something that applies to Starlink as well as any other companies – and that’s why this type of service is mainly applied to fixed broadband, not to a mobile handset like the iPhone.

Let’s not forget that most satellite phones have a visible antenna, so would Apple allow that to be built into the iPhone? Would it have a cover specifically made for relaying the signal? That also remains to be seen.

Also, the rumour about the iPhone 13 and Globalstar may have nothing to do with satellites.

Sascha Segan, a telecommunications analyst at PCMag, explains on Twitter that Globalstar is a satellite company, but also owns a terrestrial spectrum band in the 2.4 GHz zone – that’s the 53 and n53 bands mentioned earlier.

This Globalstar spectrum can only be used for terrestrial communications, not with satellites: for example, in November 2020, the company got permission to add the b53 and n53 frequencies to 4G and 5G in Brazil, Canada and Kenya; it’s up to network operators to adopt this or not.

Globalstar has been trying to place the b53/n53 bands for about a decade. Initially, the idea was not to use them for cellular connections, but rather for Wi-Fi. The technology, called TLPS (Terrestrial Low Power Service), is in the 2.4 GHz range, and to convince the industry to adopt this standard, the company even criticised the 5 GHz Wi-Fi, which ended up winning the dispute.

In 2017, Globalstar got authorization from the FCC – equivalent to Ofcom in the UK – to use band 53 in cellular networks. It got a version for 5G, called n53, which is part of the official standard. Now the company needs to convince network operators to use these frequencies; and to make it happen, mobile phone manufacturers also need to adopt compatible modems.

The standard Qualcomm X60 modem has neither b53 nor n53 support, but Kuo says the iPhone 13 will have a custom version that connects to those frequencies. The Qualcomm X65, scheduled for 2022, should bring native support for both bands. However, none of this has anything to do with satellite connectivity, as the rumour suggested.

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There are still many countries and regions without mobile broadband and network coverage. Using satellite communication is useful for a variety of solutions, including a satellite ‘hub’ that can connect to networks even in remote areas.

For instance, many industries in the US that collaborate at remote locations require strong connectivity, but there are times when reliable network signal access is not possible.

In particular, offshore, where the maritime industry is dominant, satellite communication fills the connectivity gap. Businesses that require confidential communication off the public power grid are also potential users.

However, activities such as downloading the latest episode of your favourite drama fiction are unlikely to be possible. 

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If Apple does support satellite communication in the iPhone 13, there will be numerous markets for this technology. Of course, it is inevitable that there will be a limit to the functions that can be used due to the cost of introduction.

Most consumers, at least in areas with low-quality data, do not pay $2,400 a year for unlimited messaging.

Still, if Kuo’s projections are correct, Apple management seems confident with the idea. Kuo said Apple has been working on these plans “for a while” and they are “optimistic”. On the other hand, there have been enough rumours in recent years confirming Apple’s interest in satellites.

Companies looking at ways to implement satellite communications for international teams are expected to attract a lot of attention – as we already notice with these rumours.

However, Kuo said one of the reasons Apple is interested in satellite communications is to “innovate the user experience by combining it with new products”.

In any case, if iPhones around the world are connected, it becomes a bridge to implement IoT on a global scale. If cars and AR glasses are added, it will be such a gold medal.

Even if not, there seems a good chance that Apple will use the iPhone 13’s satellite communication feature to develop (or acquire a related company) its own satellite data and communication network on a global scale.

Every year, Apple usually introduces its new products around September, however last year, the covid-19 pandemic forced them to launch their new products in October. 

Expectations are that Apple will get back to using September for its biggest event of the year. A Chinese e-commerce site called IT Home let slip that iPhone 13 pre-sales may begin on September 17 and the smartphones would then hit shops on the 24th. After the new iPhone, IT Home claims that a third-generation AirPods will also be released on September 30. 

Ready for such an innovation?

What are your thoughts on how it would change our lives?

Let me know in the comments!