James McKenzie is fascinated by the latest Apple iPhone, which can now communicate directly with satellites
When the first mobile phones came out, I simply couldn’t wait to have a go with the latest version and see what incredible technological innovations they’d contain. Back in the early 2000s, it amazed me that phones could now be used to browse the Internet, send e-mails, and work out where you were with GPS. The world was moving fast and I’d avidly and eagerly follow every new development.
I was even more excited when Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007. The device really did focus on the customer, boasting an array of revolutionary features, being easy to use and having a sturdy protective Gorilla glass coating. Over the next five years, smart phones developed still further, featuring better cameras, longer-lasting batteries, more powerful processors and all sorts of new apps.
Unlike previous satellite phones, Apple’s new device contains all the relevant technology inside the standard, thin iPhone glass slab
But for about the last 10 years, from my perspective, smart phones have just got a bit dull. Yes, their cameras might have become better than my own eye. And occasionally there were nifty developments like phones being waterproof or letting you pay for things with a simple tap. However, I found myself only getting a new phone if, say, I’d smashed my old one or I’d dropped it in the toilet by mistake.
Then, in September this year, my interest was re-awakened. That’s because the new Apple iPhone 14 lets you communicate directly with satellites, which could be a life-saver if you’re in an emergency or in a remote location. And unlike previous satellite phones, which came with a huge dish or a six-inch stick antenna, the new device contains all the relevant technology inside the standard, thin iPhone glass slab. It’s also up to 40% more powerful than the previous model.
We could – finally – be at the start of the “always-connected” era.
Satellite phones first came onto the market in the 1980s. Developed by the British firm Inmarsat, they communicated via three large satellites in geostationary orbit roughly 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. The phones were originally used by pilots, sailors or people in remote locations, who could now make phone calls, send data and be tracked anywhere on the planet (except if they drifted too near the poles).
Inmarsat later offered smaller, cheaper, hand-held sat phones, which opened up the customer base further. In 1997 they were joined on the market by Thuraya, a firm based in the United Arab Emirates that provided coverage across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. Unfortunately, users faced eye-watering phone bills and had to contend with long time lags because signals had to travel all the way to geostationary satellites and back.
The next major development came in 1998 with the launch of the Iridium network, which consisted of 77 satellites in low-Earth orbit (so named because iridium has an atomic number of 77). The satellites were placed in six polar orbital planes at a height of about 780 km, communicating with ground stations and with each other via radio links. The shorter round trip slashed delay times, but users balked at the high price and lack of full global coverage. In under a year, Iridium went bust.
The device uses the latest radio chip sets from US semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm and some impressive antenna technology
Fortunately, in late 2000 the US government stepped in to save Iridium by giving the bankrupt company a $78m, two-year contract and allowing its assets to be sold for $25m. The fire sale erased over $4bn of debt and allowed Iridium to restart operations later that year via the new Iridium Satellite LLC. Its handsets still looked like bricks and required a large folding antenna but over the years they became more compact, and eventually pocket sized.
Iridium continues to thrive and has recently replaced its original ageing constellation by launching 75 new satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Indeed, satellite phones have benefited hugely from falling launch costs. When NASA unveiled its space shuttle in 1981, it cost about $85,000 per kilogram to put an object in space, but by 2020 SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy vehicle had broken the $1000/kg barrier. Firms can now cheaply and easily deploy lots of low-Earth orbit satellites, giving users much better coverage at a much lower price.
But how does the new iPhone manage without the big antennas traditionally associated with sat phones? It seems the device uses the latest radio chip sets from the US semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm and some impressive antenna technology. Together, these developments let the phones connect to the Globalstar network, which covers most of the world’s landmass with 24 satellites in low-Earth orbit.
It would be easy to dismiss this new feature as a fad. After all, the service is pretty basic, merely providing emergency text services when there is no mobile or WiFi service. You also have to point your phone in the right direction to maximize the signal in “satellite” mode. And you won’t be able to use your new sat-nav device in China or North Korea either as sat phones are banned there.
But as technology progresses and highly-sensitive phased-array antennas get added under the glass to future versions, I am sure the price will fall further. I also expect voice and data services to be included too. Other players in the “direct-to-handset” satellite connectivity market include AST SpaceMobile and Lynk, which are developing their own satellite constellations to provide messaging and eventually voice services.
A third system was announced in August 2022 when T-Mobile US and SpaceX announced a partnership to add satellite-phone service to the Starlink Gen2 satellites, which are due to be launched from late 2022 onwards. The service will let people use their mobile phones in those parts of North America that currently lack any signal. Initially, they’ll only be able to send text messages, but phone calls and data services will eventually be added too.
My dream of a smart phone that can be used anywhere in the world surely can’t be a long way off.