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iPhone 14 satellite connectivity: how it works, what it costs, and more

Apple has unveiled its new iPhone 14 lineup, and while the phones mainly feature the usual slate of annual upgrades such as camera and performance improvements, this year’s iPhone models also packed in some exciting and valuable new personal safety features.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is Emergency SOS via satellite, a new feature that could allow iPhone owners to summon help from just about anywhere on the planet — even when traditional cellular networks are unavailable.

Search and rescue helicopter rescuing two stranded hikers.
Apple

While introducing the feature during its Far Out event on September 7, Apple was quick to point out that cellular coverage is improving all the time. However, company executives conceded that it’s still not hard to find yourself in a situation where you may have little or no signal, especially in remote areas where folks often need emergency assistance.

How Emergency SOS via satellite works

Apple’s new satellite connectivity feature is solely for emergency use. Apple has not turned the iPhone 14 into a satellite phone, and you still won’t be able to make calls or send text messages without traditional cellular connectivity.

Introducing Emergency SOS via satellite | Apple

In fact, Emergency SOS via satellite is a feature you’ll hopefully never need to use. It’s unlikely you’ll see any settings for it on your iPhone; it remains hidden in the background until you need it.

This is also a fallback emergency system. It only activates when you have no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage available at all — from any carrier. As cool and futuristic as satellite communications sound, calling 911 over your cellular network is still a far more efficient way to call for help. Further, in the U.S. and Canada, you can place a 911 call over any cellular network, whether you’re a subscriber on that network or not; you don’t even need an active SIM or eSIM in your iPhone to do so.

Satellite communications are slower than traditional cellular calls and texts as the signal has to travel a much greater distance. Apple hasn’t said which satellite network it’s using, 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. By contrast, if you have cellular service, you’re likely less than 10 miles away from a cellular tower.

Communications satellite in Earth orbit.
Apple

In practical terms, Apple says that even in ideal conditions — with a direct view of the sky and the horizon — an emergency SOS message will typically take around 15 seconds to transmit via satellite. Add some trees with medium foliage to the mix, and that delay can increase to over a minute.

This brings up another critical point about Emergency SOS via satellite: You need to be outside to use it, with a reasonably clear view of the sky and the horizon. Since Apple didn’t want to add a big and bulky antenna to the iPhone, it needs to be pointed directly at a satellite with an unobstructed line of sight.

Emergency SOS via satellite may not work even if you’re under heavy foliage, and it certainly won’t function indoors or underground. Apple explains that hills, mountains, canyons, and tall structures can also interfere with establishing a satellite connection.

How do I summon help via satellite in an emergency?

Thankfully, 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 is not efficient when each message could take a couple of minutes.

Since you obviously can’t see a satellite that’s hundreds of miles in orbit, your iPhone will provide guidance to help point your iPhone in the right direction to pick up an emergency satellite and lock in on it while also keeping your iPhone properly oriented during the emergency session.

Three iPhones showing Emergency SOS via satellite feature.
Apple

Instead of simply opening up 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 emergency responders with crucial information. These responses will be sent in the first message along with your Medical ID and emergency contact information, your location and elevation, and the remaining battery life of your iPhone.

Three iPhones showing Emergency SOS via satellite question prompts.
Apple

Once that initial request for help has been sent, emergency responders may ask you for more information via standard text messages, but the important thing is that they’ll have everything they need to get started on rescue efforts.

What do I need to use Emergency SOS via satellite?

Emergency SOS via satellite is exclusive to the iPhone 14, and the good news is that it’s available on every iPhone 14 model, 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 could have had the necessary hardware to support satellite communications, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Analysts picked up on a new 5G band being added to the iPhone 13, and some incorrectly presumed that this would be for satellite connectivity. The confusion resulted from the 5G frequency, known as band 53, being licensed exclusively to Globalstar, a satellite communications company. However, like most communication technology companies, Globalstar does more than just satellites; it also operates private terrestrial LTE and 5G networks using this band in places like the Port of Seattle and the New York Power Authority.

Person holding iPhone 14 with Emergency SOS via satellite notifications.
Apple

Emergency SOS via satellite isn’t part of the new Apple Watch models either — not even the Apple Watch Ultra. Mark Gurman shared earlier this year that Apple is working on bringing this feature to the Apple Watch. However, he also added that it might not make the cut for this year’s lineup. Whether we’ll see it appear on a 2023 Apple Watch remains an open question, but considering the complex technology involved, Apple likely still has some work to do to get it to fit into the wearable.

Lastly, iPhone 14 models sold in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao won’t support the Emergency SOS via satellite feature. It’s not entirely clear why this is the case; it could be related to these models lacking support for eSIM or using other cellular frequencies that interfere with satellite communications. It also may simply be politics — it’s likely no coincidence that Huawei announced its own satellite-powered SOS feature earlier this week, only a day before Apple’s iPhone 14 event. Huawei’s system is also powered by Beidou, China’s state-owned GPS and communications satellite network.

Where can I use Emergency SOS via satellite?

Technically, Emergency SOS via satellite should let you call for help from anywhere on the globe. The problem is that actually getting that help is a bit more complicated as it relies on other factors, such as whether emergency responders in a given country or region are even equipped for it.

Person holding iPhone 14 searching for Emergency SOS satellite.
Apple

As a result, Emergency SOS via satellite is launching exclusively in the U.S. and Canada. This includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. 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, what region your iPhone is set to, or what carrier you normally use. International travelers who visit the U.S. and Canada can use Emergency SOS via satellite, as long as their iPhone 14 supports it; as noted earlier, those purchased in mainland China, Hong Kong, or Macao are sadly excluded.

Apple also notes that Emergency SOS via satellite might not work in extreme northern locations — those above 62 degrees north. That area encompasses most of Canada’s three northern territories and much of Alaska.

Emergency SOS via satellite also only supports American English, American Spanish, and French Canadian, and only Latin characters are supported in emergency text messages sent via satellite.

When will Emergency SOS via satellite be available?

Note that Emergency SOS via satellite will not be available when the iPhone 14 launches on September 16. Apple says it will require an iOS 16 software update expected to arrive in November 2022.

Based on Apple’s past track record, we may not even see it in iOS 16.1, as Apple typically launches that in October. Expect it to arrive in iOS 16.2.

How much does Emergency SOS via satellite cost?

Perhaps one of the most exciting and surprising things about Apple’s satellite communications feature is the cost; Apple is offering it at no extra charge — sort of.

Technically, Apple isn’t saying there’s no charge for the service. In fact, the company is implying that it may eventually cost something — it’s merely including it for free for two years “with the activation of any iPhone 14 model.”

Apple hasn’t said what it will cost after that. It’s possible the company hasn’t even decided yet, which is fair as it has two years to figure that out. However, by comparison, Garmin charges a $15 monthly subscription fee for satellite connectivity on its inReach devices.

Either way, the good news is you don’t need to worry about recurring fees for at least two years.

What else can I use iPhone 14 satellite communications for?

Apple is using its satellite connectivity to power one other feature that could come in handy even when you’re not in an emergency situation.

With the Find My app on an iPhone 14, you can now share your location via satellite, so your friends and family know where you are even when you’re far off the grid.

iPhone 14 showing Find My location reported via satellite.
Apple

Unlike using your iPhone on cellular or Wi-Fi, where your location gets updated automatically in the background, you’ll have to share your location manually when using satellite communications. It’s not yet clear exactly how this 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 until the rest of the Emergency SOS via satellite capabilities come in the November iOS 16 update.

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