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Satellite

The iPhone satellite service looks desperately niche

iPhone addicts are often seen ambling down the local high street in a crinkled-brow communion with their devices, oblivious to other pedestrians and sometimes on course for a collision with a passing vehicle at the next interchange. The phenomenon has given rise to the expression "smombie," for smartphone zombie. There are a vanishingly small number of places still free of smombies – unexplored rainforests, the steppes of central Asia and mountain peaks where smombies could roam safely if only they could pick up a signal. But that is set to change.

Having run out of other ideas, and apparently decided 5G is not worth blathering about anymore, Apple has added satellite connectivity to its latest iPhone – the 14 Pro – for the customer who wants to stream Netflix atop Kilimanjaro. Reported yesterday after Apple's usual showbiz-style launch in Cupertino, the new feature could unleash a herd of smombies on the great outdoors.

If only it were half so exciting. In a video update at the Cupertino event, shot somewhere resembling a scene from Little House on the Prairie, a satellite expert called Ashley Williams proceeded to suck any joy out of the announcement. Satellite bandwidth is so limited that "even sending a text message is a technical challenge," she began.

Apple's Ashley Williams in the middle of nowhere. (Source: YouTube)
Apple's Ashley Williams in the middle of nowhere.
(Source: YouTube)

Worse, the circuitry Apple designed to replace the "bulky external antenna" on a standard satellite phone means the 14 Pro must be aimed at a passing satellite (a graphic display helpfully shows you where the space junk floats at that moment). Far from watching Stranger Things in the outback, users will be limited to sending an emergency SOS in the event they stumble down a mountain crevasse (hopefully one with an unobstructed view of the heavens) while struggling to get online.

In case there were any doubt that streaming is not an option, the video featuring Williams swiftly cuts to mountain rescue footage of a helicopter racing toward iPhone customers in need of help. The subtext is unsubtle: If you were an Android user with a broken leg, you'd just have to claw your way back to Everest base camp. But even the iPhone injured might have to wait for assistance: Because not all emergency service providers are able to receive text messages, Apple has had to set up staffed relay centers to pass on the news.

Don't all these serious mountaineers already have satellite phones? Are those "bulky" antennas really that cumbersome when you're hoisting a 60-liter backpack uphill? Globalstar, the satellite provider, won't care. After outing Apple as the mystery customer it signed up in 2020, it predicted its sales would hit between $185 million and $230 million next year, up from $124 million in 2021. Apple, it seems, is handing over tens of millions annually so that a few antenna-less, accident-struck mountaineers can be whisked to safety.

More space junk

Globalstar needs all the boost it can get. Back in 2007, several years after satellite's original heyday, its share price was more than $14 on the Nasdaq. Even after the uplift provided by the Apple news, it currently drifts along at about $2. Revenues have fallen from about $132 million in 2019 to roughly $124 million last year as Globalstar has swung from a small net profit of $15 million to a troubling net loss of nearly $113 million. In its last fiscal year, its debt obligations totaled $265.2 million.

Satellite's overriding problem, of course, is that terrestrial networks are almost ubiquitous in the areas where people live and are prepared or able to pay for a service. And yet it's currently impossible for any telecom journalist to open their inbox without seeing another email about satellite. The last two weeks alone have seen updates from Bullitt, a British company touting a satellite phone sans bulky antenna, Lynk, a direct-to-phone satellite operator, and – most intriguingly – T-Mobile US and Elon Musk. The Deutsche Telekom-owned operator has teamed up with the Tesla billionaire on the development of another satellite-direct-to-phone service.


Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.


Some analysts are high-fiving about satellite's resurgence as if it were 1999 (read this detailed report by Light Reading's Mike Dano on the various developments). But at least one terrestrial operator is reserving judgement. "Over time, LEOs [low-Earth orbiting satellites] will have a role to play, but let's see how the Elon Musk and T-Mobile announcement from last week evolves," said Howard Watson, BT's chief technology officer, at a press conference this week. "At the moment, you are talking about low-bit-rate messaging and potentially 30-minute latency. That has a bit of evolution to do."

Satellite obviously has a role to play, and an essential one at that, but is the overall market big enough to support all the various constellations being launched, not to mention those already in orbit? With Globalstar and other companies planning to shoot more equipment into space, the skies could be cluttered with aluminium in the next few years. Elon Musk's future flight to Mars risks being hit by some of his own space junk.

A satellite-based SOS service for mountaineers will persuade hardly anyone to buy the 14 Pro, but there will undoubtedly be the usual stampede for Apple's latest luxury trinket. In most other ways, it looks barely discernible from its predecessor (this correspondent was insufficiently important in the devices market to receive a review model or invite to Apple's event, and possibly just insufficiently important altogether). That Apple will pocket tens of billions from unnecessary, landfill-generating upgrades is a reminder that the cost-of-living crisis is bypassing plenty.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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