Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

The iPhone’s futuristic satellite tech isn’t coming to Android any time soon

The Google Pixel 8's screen.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

It could take a while before Android phones allow satellite connectivity to assist users in emergency scenarios, thanks in no part to Qualcomm canceling its ambitious Snapdragon Satellite plans. Apple introduced satellite SOS support last year with the iPhone 14 series, with the intention of helping people when they are out of cellular or broadband coverage range.

The feature allows you to text emergency responders, share locations, and request roadside assistance. But not long after, hope emerged for Android phones. Earlier this year, Qualcomm announced Snapdragon Satellite, with the goal of aping Apple’s initiative for Android phones.

Iridium Satellite constellation
Iridium / Iridium

Qualcomm said it would be the “world’s first satellite-based two-way capable messaging solution,” even though the company hinted that it would be exclusive to high-end phones only. The satellite connection facility was baked at a hardware level on phones powered by the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip using the onboard Snapdragon 5G Modem-RF Systems.

Virginia-based Iridium handled the satellite infrastructure as Qualcomm’s chosen partner. The chipmaker said satellite-based emergency messaging would appear on phones in 2023. That didn’t happen, and unfortunately, the chances of Qualcomm playing a role in bringing satellite connectivity to Android phones in 2024 appear slimmer.

That’s because Qualcomm has nixed the Snapdragon Satellite project. “Qualcomm notified Iridium that it has elected to terminate the agreements, effective December 3, 2023,” Iridium wrote in a press release. The reason behind the deal falling apart was that smartphone makers simply did not implement the technology provided by Qualcomm into their smartphones.

Qualcomm Snapdragon Satellite feature poster.

Apple isn’t the only one offering satellite connectivity service on smartphones, and the world of Android isn’t entirely alien to it, either. Bullit Group’s Cat S75 is an Android device that offers direct-to-satellite communication perk. But unlike Apple’s emergency-only approach, Bullit also lets you send messages to any person in your contacts list.

In the Cat S75’s case, it’s not Qualcomm, but MediaTek that is facilitating satellite connectivity courtesy of its NTN (Non-Terrestrial Networks) chip. Of course, satellite connectivity is not free. The Essential plan costs 5 euros and allows 30 messages per month, while the 30 euro plan bumps that number to 400 messages.

Motorola also tapped Bullit Group for the Motorola Defy Satellite Link, a Bluetooth-based puck that allows any smartphone to send and receive texts over a satellite link. The IP68-rated rugged device also lets a person tap the dedicated SOS button to call for emergency assistance without pairing their phone.

Why Snapdragon Satellite failed

Man holding smartphone up to the sky to get a satellite fix.

But why did Qualcomm’s plans die? Consumer technology analyst Avi Greengart wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that Android smartphone makers weren’t keen on a proprietary solution to the phone-satellite facility. But that’s exactly what Qualcomm was offering. The smartphone brands were looking for a standards-based solution that gave them more leverage in their partnerships with satellite service providers like Iridium.

Qualcomm and Iridium are parting ways. Word is that device vendors were not willing to adopt Snapdragon Satellite because they wanted a standards-based solution instead. IF that's true…

— Avi Greengart (@greengart) November 10, 2023

“Apple is doing Emergency SOS via Satellite on its own, and if it does start charging after two years, it owns an extensive services platform with hundreds of millions of accounts for billing. Most smartphone vendors don’t have this capability. Wireless carriers have billing relationships with their customers, so they would be a natural choice to act as middlemen,” Greengart tells Digital Trends.

Talking about carriers, it’s still a work in progress. Elon Musk-led SpaceX joined hands with T-Mobile last year, announcing that the Magenta carrier’s customers will be able to tap the Starlink satellite network without any special hardware attached to their phones. Beta-testing of the service was supposed to begin later in 2023.

The next step for satellite on Android

The T-Mobile logo on a smartphone.
NurPhoto / Getty Images

SpaceX says it will allow a satellite-based texting facility next year, while voice calling and internet browsing functionality will go live in 2025. T-Mobile plans to utilize its mid-band spectrum to establish a new broadcast network that will be connected to Starlink satellites fitted with the specialized eNodeB modem that essentially works like a cell tower in space.

Notably, SpaceX has also inked similar deals with carriers in multiple countries —including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland. AST SpaceMobile is also eyeing the “cellular broadband directly to your phone” facility. Last month, AST Space Mobile – in partnership with Vodafone – successfully managed the world’s first 5G voice call over a satellite network and achieved a downlink speed of 14 Mbps on a cellular broadband link.

Three iPhones showing Emergency SOS via satellite question prompts.
Apple / Apple

Amazon is lending a hand to Vodafone in extending its 4G and 5G services in Africa with a high-bandwidth, low-latency satellite network provided by the Project Kuiper constellation. Verizon also has a similar deal in place to exploit Amazon’s low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Indian behemoth Jio has started testing satellite-based gigabit internet service across multiple locations.

Where do we go from here?

A OneWeb satellite in space.

It is becoming clear that satellite service providers (like SpaceX and Amazon) and carriers will play a key role in bringing satellite connectivity to phones, and not just chipmakers like Qualcomm hawking custom hardware. It’s unlikely that Qualcomm was absorbing the cost of its Snapdragon Satellite modem hardware, which means the smartphone brands had to pay a higher price for the proprietary tech.

First-Ever 5G Connectivity from Space to Everyday Smartphones Achieved by AST SpaceMobile

Instead, smartphone companies are looking at a standards-based approach where they could get more negotiation flexibility by talking directly with carriers and satellite operators. But how far are we from a future where the likes of AST SpaceMobile – which is already working with T-Mobile and a bunch of their global carriers – can widely extend their satellite-to-phone 5G services?

“AST SpaceMobile needs about two dozen satellites for coverage in key geographies, and 90 to offer global coverage. Currently, it has two in orbit. It is prepping five for launch early next year,” Greengart tells DigitalTrends. “I would expect small trials to start then if the launch goes well, but I don’t expect full service before 2025, and that depends on a lot of things going its way.”

A deeper dive into Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite hiccup and the overall status of the industry is available in a report at Techsponential, a firm where Greengart serves as the President.

Editors' Recommendations

Nadeem Sarwar
Nadeem is a tech journalist who started reading about cool smartphone tech out of curiosity and soon started writing…
How I use my Apple Watch and iPhone to manage my diabetes
iPhone 15 Pro showing One Drop app and kit.

It’s November, which means it’s Diabetes Awareness Month, with World Diabetes Day recently happening on November 14. According to data from the Apple Heart and Movement Study (AHMS) and Apple Women’s Health Study (AWHS), there are about 537 million adults worldwide who are currently living with diabetes, with that number potentially reaching 643 million by 2030. In the U.S. alone, about two out of five people will develop diabetes in their lifetime, and more than one in three adults have elevated glucose levels that put them in the pre-diabetes zone.

I was pre-diabetic since my college years (it runs in both sides of my family), but then my doctor officially diagnosed me with Type 2 diabetes around early 2018. However, I was told that my case was more “mild” than others and that taking some medication — while also cutting out carbs and sweets, plus daily exercise — can help me keep it under control.

Read more
The iPhone is getting out of control
The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and iPhone 14 Pro showing the screens.

Apple iPhone 14 Pro (left) and iPhone 15 Pro Max Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

When Apple launched the original iPhone in 2007, it was as easy as could be — it was just the iPhone. There was only one model, and when you said you wanted an iPhone, the sales rep would know which one you meant ... because that was all there was.

Read more
One of our favorite Android phones just got its own iMessage app
Nothing Chats app on a. phone.

Nothing is trying to bridge the great blue/green bubble divide for Android users of iMessage. This is not a personal crusade to shatter walls and open windows, as much as Nothing CEO Carl Pei would want you to believe that. Instead, Nothing is piggybacking on tech created by New York-based startup Sunbird. 
Technically, the Sunbird app can be installed on any Android phone and it features a blue bubble for all iMessage text exchanges involving an Android phone. No more green bubble shame that could get you kicked out of groups for disrupting the harmony or even slim your dating chances. That’s how bad it is! 
Nothing is adopting the Sunbird tech and bundling it as its very own app under the name Nothing Chats. But here’s the fun part. The app only works on the Nothing Phone 2 and not the Nothing Phone 1. And this life-altering boon will only be bestowed upon users in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., or the EU bloc.

The app is currently in the beta phase, which means some iMessage features will be broken or absent. Once the app is downloaded on your Nothing Phone 2, you can create a new account or sign up with your Apple ID to get going with blue bubble texts. 
Just in case you’re concerned, all messages will be end-to-end encrypted, and the app doesn’t collect any personal information, such as the users’ geographic location or the texts exchanged. Right now, Sunbird and Nothing have not detailed the iMessage features and those that are broken. 
We made iMessage for Android...
The Washington Post tried an early version of the Nothing Chats app and notes that the blue bubble system works just fine. Texts between an Android device and an iPhone are neatly arranged in a thread, and multimedia exchange is also allowed at full quality. 
However, message editing is apparently not available, and a double-tap gesture for responding with a quick emoji doesn’t work either. We don’t know when these features will be added. Nothing's Sunbird-based app will expand to other territories soon. 
Sunbird, however, offers a handful of other tricks aside from serving the iMessage blue bubble on Android. It also brings all your other messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, in one place. This isn’t an original formula, as Beeper offers the same convenience.

Read more