Apple could eclipse wireless operators' satellite plans

T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are all moving to offer satellite-based services. But Apple's expanding work with satellite operator Globalstar could outpace those efforts.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

July 10, 2024

5 Min Read
 Image of the iPhone 15.
(Source: Apple)

Apple later this year will shift its satellite messaging strategy from emergency services to just regular services.

The iPhone supplier will do so with the release of its iOS 18 software platform, scheduled to be available this fall. That update will immediately give casual, non-emergency satellite messaging services to a good chunk of the estimated 375 million iPhone users globally who own satellite-capable phones.

Apple first launched satellite messaging with its iPhone 14 in 2022. That gadget, and Apple's subsequent iPhones, support direct links to Globalstar's roughly two dozen satellites. 

However, Apple's satellite messaging services so far are only intended for emergencies, such as directing rescuers to stranded hikers

With iOS 18, Apple will open the service to regular, non-emergency messages, at least for those iPhone customers in countries where the service is available.

Some have already begun testing the offering using a beta version of iOS 18.

"Here is the story of my first satellite iMessage. It occurred in the middle of a high school football field, the location of my youngest's graduation," wrote LightShed Partners analyst Walter Piecyk in a recent post. "From my lap, with people in front of and behind me, I sent my first sat message to three people. Two went through. The third, to my wife sitting next to me, did not. I did not text further than this because I was at my kid's graduation. I also did not wave my hands in the air to find the satellite."

Concluded Piecyk: "Consumers may utilize this new functionality much more than most believe."

Globalstar, Apple's satellite vendor, is working to expand its satellite operations. The company is asking for federal approvals to launch another 26 satellites by next year. And, according to German publication Handelsblatt, Globalstar could eventually expand its satellite constellation to as many as 3,080 satellites over the next few years.

Apple has long been rumored to have satellite ambitions expanding far beyond emergency messaging services. For example, Apple's Time Cook was reportedly interested in a research project at the company that would use satellites to bypass terrestrial wireless networks.

"We think it's reasonable to assume that voice [calling] is on the roadmap," Piecyk, the LightShed analyst, wrote of Apple and Globalstar.

The carrier response

To be clear, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile aren't sitting still.

T-Mobile's satellite messaging service appears set for launch at about the same time Apple is scheduled to release iOS 18.

According to SpaceX, the company's "direct-to-cell" service with T-Mobile is launching commercially in the US this fall. SpaceX announced in 2022 that it would build satellites that could connect to T-Mobile's customers via the operator's spectrum holdings.

SpaceX has so far launched more than 100 "direct-to-cell" satellites in support of that effort. That's a small fraction of SpaceX's constellation of around 6,000 low-Earth orbit satellites, but the company has been working to launch more "direct-to-cell" satellites on an almost weekly basis.

T-Mobile, though, has not discussed the contours of its planned satellite offering. Will it be intended only for emergencies? Will it be available to all of T-Mobile's customers? How much will it cost?

Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon may not launch their own satellite-based messaging services until next year at the earliest. Both companies will run their satellite services through satellite operator AST SpaceMobile, and neither has outlined a firm launch date.

In a new SEC filing, AST SpaceMobile said it plans to launch its first five commercial satellites in the next few weeks on a SpaceX rocket. But the company suggested it won't be able to offer services in its "selected, targeted geographical areas" until it has 25 satellites in orbit. The company said it would launch its first next-generation commercial satellite between December 2024 and March 2025 with an unnamed launch company.

Things get messy

All of those satellite launches raise plenty of questions.

First, regulators must sign off on many such plans. For example, Globalstar's CEO recently petitioned top FCC officials to approve the company's spectrum-usage plans in the US. But companies including SpaceX oppose those efforts.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and T-Mobile are asking regulators to approve the technical details of their own satellite messaging system. AT&T, Verizon, EchoStar's Dish Network and others oppose that effort.

Another regulatory question: Are direct-to-cell satellites too bright in the night sky?

But, beyond the regulatory angle, it's also not clear how satellite offerings from one company might interact with those from another.

"With the Apple/Globalstar service now active, it's unclear how the T-Mobile subscriber will pick between the two available services," wrote Piecyk, the LightShed analyst. "Will the iPhone revert to the best connection? Will the consumer have to toggle one on? Shouldn't T-Mobile's network get priority?"

Added Piecyk: "We suspect that Apple's integration ... will likely be more user friendly than T-Mobile/Starlink's service."

He also wrote that satellite noise from Apple and T-Mobile this fall could spark interest in the technology among Verizon and AT&T customers.

"Apple's satellite connectivity will not be restricted just to T-Mobile users," Piecyk wrote. "If anything, a successful launch of T-Mobile/Starlink service could drive higher usage of the Apple/Globalstar solution by Verizon and AT&T subscribers."

Finally, Piecyk argued that satellites likely will never fully circumvent operators' terrestrial networks.

"We ... do not believe satellite networks will be the primary network for a typical smartphone user based on capacity and performance," he wrote.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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