Can satellite texts be a true lifesaver for normal smartphone users?
Apple and Huawei have packed their newest smartphones with satellite connectivity, a novel feature that’s rarely seen on consumer-grade products. Huawei’s Mate50 series allows for one-way satellite messaging to the users’ contacts, with the users’ current location embedded. Apple’s iPhone 14 features satellite messaging (or “Emergency SOS via satellite” as they call it) to emergency response departments, with the option to notify users’ emergency contacts.
Since Mate50 allows satellite messaging to anyone in the users’ contacts, the feature might be useful even if the user is not in a crisis or in remote locations — Chinese netizens jokingly call the feature “the best tool for your spouse or parents to check up on you”. Currently, users can get 30 free satellite texts per month during the trial period, with paid subscription plans to be announced.
All jokes aside, how useful is the satellite messaging function? For starters, both Apple’s and Huawei’s satellite features are restricted by location — Huawei users can only experience the feature in mainland China, while Apple users can only experience the feature in the U.S. and Canada, excluding Guam or American Samoa and high latitude areas such as Alaska.
The feature is also not as advanced as you might imagine – a satellite message takes about 15 seconds in unobstructed surroundings, longer under trees, and might be unable to connect in heavily obstructed places.
Elon Musk-owned SpaceX is working with T-Mobile to launch a new mobile service that will “end mobile dead zones”, enabled by Starlink second-generation satellites and T-Mobile bandwidth.
Google is in the satellite race too — in early September, Hiroshi Lockheimer, SVP at Google, tweeted they are “designing for satellites” and “user experiences for phones that can connect to satellites” be available in the next version of Android.
Xingjishidai, owned by China’s automaker Geely who has its own satellites, has also announced future plans regarding making a consumer-grade smartphone that directly connects to LEO satellites.
So why are we embracing satellite when we are already pacing towards 5G? It comes down to coverage — our daily communications rely deeply on traditional cell towers, which cover limited land areas and are expensive to build.
That’s why rural/remote areas often don’t get signals. It is financially unfeasible for underdeveloped or underpopulated areas to build cell towers, let alone 5G ones. According to a report published by the China International Development Knowledge Center, about 38% of the world’s population (i.e. 2.9 billion people) are still not able to connect to the Internet by the end of 2021.
In contrast, satellite communication does not require infrastructures such as cell towers or fiber optics, and has a wider coverage, though it is significantly slower. Satellite communication would fill the void that cellular signals do not cover, and be helpful in exceptional circumstances such as when adventuring in the wilderness.
Sky is the limit
While Apple collaborated with Globalstar, a company that makes low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, to realize its Emergency SOS via satellite function, Huawei works with China’s own BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which consists of 55 satellites.
BeiDou was officially launched and put into operation in July 2020. The global range positioning accuracy of the Beidou-3 system is measured to be better than 4.4 meters, comparable to that of the U.S. (national) GPS, with better performance in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Chen Gucang, Deputy Director of China Satellite Navigation System Management Office, at a press conference earlier this year. Beidou products have been applied in more than half of the countries and regions in the world to serve local economic and social development, says Chen.
The rapid rise of satellite communications has the potential to challenge the order of the existing communications market. “With the addition of satellite communications to the mass communication market, it will inevitably lead to significant development of related enterprises,” according to communication expert Ma Jihua, citing from China Business Journal. “After all, the scale of the previous specialized satellite communications market may be just less than one percent of the mass market,” Ma adds.
In the end, satellite messaging is just the start of applying the technology to everyday scenarios. Given the current limitations of infrastructures such as the number of satellites and potential privacy concerns, the now hot satellite messaging functions might be more of a lifesaver to the industry than to users.