Apple has unveiled its new iPhone 14 lineup, and while the phones mostly feature the usual list of annual upgrades such as camera and performance improvements, this year’s iPhone models are also packed with exciting and valuable new personal security features.
Perhaps the most interesting of these is Satellite Emergency SOS, a new feature that could allow iPhone owners to call for help from just about anywhere on the planet, even when the traditional cellular networks are not available.
When showing off the feature at its Far Out event on September 7, Apple was quick to point out that cellular coverage is improving all the time. However, company executives admitted that it’s still not difficult to find yourself in a situation where you may have little or no signal, especially in remote areas where people often need a emergency help.
How Satellite Emergency SOS Works
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Apple’s new satellite connectivity feature is intended for emergency use only. Apple didn’t turn the iPhone 14 into a satellite phone, and you still won’t be able to make calls or text without traditional cellular connectivity.
In fact, Emergency SOS via satellite is a feature you will hopefully never need to use. You’re unlikely to see settings for this on your iPhone; it stays hidden in the background until you need it.
It is also a backup emergency system. It only activates when you have no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage available – from any carrier. As cool and futuristic as satellite communications may seem, calling 911 on your cellular network is still a much more efficient way to call for help. Additionally, in the United States and Canada, you can place a 911 call on any cellular network, whether or not you subscribe to that network. you don’t even need an active SIM or eSIM card in your iPhone to do this.
Satellite communications are slower than traditional cellular calls and text messages because the signal must travel a much greater distance. Apple hasn’t specified which satellite network it uses, but it’s most likely the Iridium network, a constellation of 66 satellites orbiting 485 miles above the Earth’s surface at 17,000 miles per hour. On the other hand, if you have cell service, you are probably within 10 miles of a cell tower.
Specifically, Apple says that even under ideal conditions – with a direct view of the sky and the horizon – an emergency SOS message will typically take around 15 seconds to be transmitted via satellite. Add a few medium-foliage trees to the mix, and that delay can increase to over a minute.
This brings up another critical point about Satellite Emergency SOS: you need to be outdoors to use it, with a reasonably clear view of the sky and horizon. Since Apple didn’t want to add a big, bulky antenna to the iPhone, it needs to be pointed directly at a satellite with a clear line of sight.
Satellite Emergency SOS may not work even if you are under heavy foliage, and it certainly will not work indoors or underground. Apple explains that hills, mountains, canyons, and tall structures can also interfere with establishing a satellite connection.
How do I request satellite assistance in an emergency?
Fortunately, Apple has taken these delays into consideration. In an emergency, you want to get help as quickly as possible, and trying to carry on a back-and-forth conversation isn’t effective when each message can take a few minutes.
Since you obviously can’t see a satellite that’s hundreds of miles away in orbit, your iPhone will provide guidance to help you point your iPhone in the right direction to pick up an emergency satellite and lock onto it while still keeping your iPhone correctly oriented during the emergency session.
Instead of just opening a text messaging window once you’ve established the emergency satellite link, you’ll be asked to answer a series of multiple-choice questions so you can easily describe your situation and provide responders with critical information urgently. These replies will be sent in the first message with your Medical ID and emergency contact information, your location and altitude, and the remaining battery life of your iPhone.
After this initial request for help is sent, emergency responders may ask you for more information via standard text messages, but the important thing is that they have everything they need to begin rescue efforts.
What do I need to use Emergency SOS by satellite?
Satellite Emergency SOS is exclusive to the iPhone 14, and the good news is that it’s available on all iPhone 14 models, from the 6.1-inch iPhone 14 to the 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Pro Max.
Although a rumor last year suggested that the iPhone 13 might have had the necessary hardware to support satellite communications, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Analysts noticed a new 5G band being added to the iPhone 13, and some incorrectly assumed it would be for satellite connectivity. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the 5G frequency, known as band 53, was licensed exclusively to Globalstar, a satellite communications company. However, like most communications technology companies, Globalstar does more than just satellites; it also operates LTE and 5G private terrestrial networks using this band in places like the Port of Seattle and the New York Electricity Authority.
Satellite emergency SOS is also not part of the new Apple Watch models, not even the Apple Watch Ultra. Mark Gurman shared earlier this year that Apple was working to bring this feature to the Apple Watch. However, he also added that he might not be part of this year’s lineup. Whether we’ll see it appear on a 2023 Apple Watch is still an open question, but given the complex tech involved, Apple likely still has some work to do to adapt it to the wearable.
Finally, iPhone 14 models sold in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao will not support Emergency SOS via satellite. It’s not entirely clear why this is the case; this could be related to the fact that these models do not support eSIM or use other cellular frequencies which interfere with satellite communications. It may also just be politics – it’s probably no coincidence that Huawei announced its own satellite-powered SOS feature earlier this week, just a day before Apple’s iPhone 14 event. Huawei’s system is also powered by Beidou, China’s state-owned GPS and satellite communications network.
Where can I use Emergency SOS by satellite?
Technically, Emergency SOS via satellite should allow you to call for help from anywhere in the world. The problem is that getting this help is a little more complicated because it depends on other factors, like whether the emergency responders in a given country or region are even equipped for it.
Accordingly, Emergency SOS via satellite is launched exclusively in the United States and Canada. This includes Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, but not Guam or American Samoa.
This refers to where Emergency SOS is physically available. It has nothing to do with where you’re from, the region your iPhone is set up in, or the carrier you normally use. International travelers visiting the United States and Canada can use Emergency SOS via satellite, as long as their iPhone 14 supports it; as previously stated, those purchased in mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau are unfortunately excluded.
Apple also notes that Satellite Emergency SOS may not work in extreme northern regions – those above 62 degrees north. This region encompasses most of Canada’s three northern territories and much of Alaska.
Satellite Emergency SOS also only supports US English, US Spanish, and Canadian French, and only Latin characters are supported in emergency text messages sent via satellite.
Note that Satellite Emergency SOS will not be available when the iPhone 14 launches on September 16. Apple says it will require a The iOS 16 software update is expected to arrive in November 2022.
Based on Apple’s track record, we might not even see it in iOS 16.1, as Apple usually releases it in October. Expect it to arrive in iOS 16.2.
Perhaps one of the most exciting and surprising things about Apple’s satellite communications feature is the cost; Apple offers it at no extra cost – sort of.
Technically, Apple doesn’t say the service is free. In fact, the company hints that it might cost something eventually — it’s just including it free for two years “with activation of any iPhone 14 model.”
Apple didn’t say what it would cost after that. It’s possible the company hasn’t even decided yet, which is fair because it has two years to find out. However, in comparison, Garmin charges a $15 monthly subscription fee for satellite connectivity on its inReach devices.
Either way, the good news is that you don’t have to worry about recurring charges for at least two years.
Apple uses its satellite connectivity to power another feature that could be useful even when you’re not in an emergency.
With the Find My app on an iPhone 14, you can now share your location via satellite, so friends and family know where you are even when you’re away from the network.
Unlike using your iPhone on a cellular or Wi-Fi network, where your location updates automatically in the background, you’ll need to share your location manually when using satellite communications. It’s not yet known exactly how it will work or when it will be available; presumably there will be a button somewhere in the iOS 16 Find My app, but Apple hasn’t said if this feature will be available at release or if we’ll have to wait for the rest of the emergency SOS capabilities via satellite to arrive. the iOS 16 November update.