back to article Rumors of satellite-comms-capable iPhone abound. The truth could be rather boring

It's claimed Apple’s upcoming iPhone 13 can use satellites in low Earth orbit for communication. According to MacRumors, which on Sunday quoted industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the smartphones will be able to make calls and send text messages in regions with little or no Wi-Fi or cellular coverage, provided the handsets can …

  1. David 132 Silver badge
    Happy

    Inclusive-Or

    “The phone will ask what kind of emergency is happening, such as whether it involves a car, boat, plane or fire,”

    "So, err.. a light aircraft crashed onto my car and pushed it off the edge of the marina, where it hit a boat and the whole lot caught fire... what option do I select???"

    1. seven of five Silver badge

      Re: Inclusive-Or

      Yes.

      1. NoneSuch Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Inclusive-Or

        Or you can put the damned phone down and be aware of what's around you so no accident happens at all...

        Just sayin'

    2. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: Inclusive-Or

      You are in the water, so I would say boat. They are most likely to have the right equipment to help you.

      1. 45RPM Silver badge

        Re: Inclusive-Or

        But the boat is on fire! And now my phone is full of salt water, and it doesn’t work anymore!

    3. hammarbtyp Silver badge

      Re: Inclusive-Or

      I am sorry, but that is the wrong type of disaster. Please contact your provider for more details

      1. DJV Silver badge

        Re: wrong type of disaster

        Or maybe it's the right type of disaster but you're holding it wrong.

    4. NXM

      Re: Inclusive-Or

      Where do I find that on YouTube?

    5. sudocode

      Re: Inclusive-Or

      Other

    6. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Inclusive-Or

      What's that you skippy?

      "So, err.. a light aircraft crashed onto my car and pushed it off the edge of the marina, where it hit a boat and the whole lot caught fire... what option do I select???"

      Oh, ok, we'll send Lassie then.

  2. Grunchy

    Starlink Debunked

    Debunked pretty hard, too. 43 minute documentary.

    https://youtu.be/2vuMzGhc1cg

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Starlink Debunked

      That doesn't sound like a promising title, or video length.

      1. katrinab Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: Starlink Debunked

        Indeed.

        How do you "debunk" Starlink?

        It works. I've seen people do live Twitch and YouTube streams over it. It is not as good as a stream over a good fibre connection, but it works as advertised.

        Will it make enough money to cover the costs of all the infrastructure? That's certainly a valid question if you plan to invest in it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Starlink Debunked

          Yeah, though SpaceX is currently the only satellite network operator that also owns a heavy lift reusable launch system. Literally no one can compete with them on base cost to deploy. So no surprise the dinosaur brigade is trying to sue the pant's off of him. If he doesn't succumb to erratic man-boy genius syndrome and shoot himself in the foot he would have the whole market sewn up before anyone else could scale to compete. He's launching for the price of gas in a re-used rocket someone already paid for, or a first flight on a fresh rocket that insurance companies are paying for to say it's already flown once without blowing up it's payload.

          Worse for the satellite competition, their best priced launch option may also on SpaceX, so they are paying for the network they are competing against.

          That's still true even if the regulators make him re-architect future generations of the constellation to use fewer satellites, at least over the next few years.

          1. doublelayer Silver badge

            Re: Starlink Debunked

            "Literally no one can compete with them on base cost to deploy."

            It depends who you count as their competitors. Geosynchronous satellite is the primary competitor for coverage where ground cable isn't available, and they absolutely can compete on price, not by having cheaper launches, but by having not very many of them. Launches for 42000 LEO satellites is more expensive than launches for 10 geosynchronous ones.

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: Starlink Debunked

              I suspect they are targeting a different customer base in the main - including the very costly HFT links, because at least in theory they can beat fibre latency transatlantic.

              That's where I expect them to make real money.

            2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Starlink Debunked

              That's true, but the added latency to geosync is 240-280ms per satellite hop.

              I gather that using Starlink, the satellite latency is 24-88ms

              So I guess is depends on what you want the link for.

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Starlink Debunked

      Ok, I decided to see what this was about. While the presenter is clearly biased against Starlink, the points raised aren't wrong. Here's a summary for those who don't want to watch:

      1. It will be expensive to send up so many satellites and sell the equipment at a loss, so the predictions for revenue are very optimistic. This isn't really a surprise for a Musk company.

      2. Starlink is worse than fiber service. Duh.

      3. Starlink has worse bandwidth and better latency than geosynchronous satellite. Duh.

      4. It clutters up the orbit. If you didn't know this already, you weren't paying attention. This leads to problems for land-based astronomy, future launches, and other users.

      5. Failed satellites haven't automatically fallen like they were supposed to.

      These points put together don't "debunk" Starlink; that was a poorly chosen name. They raise valid objections to it, most of which are well-known already. When you consider them in the context of the article, the only change is to slightly weaken the first objection--if they manage to get phone service over their satellites, that adds another set of possible subscribers which could make more money and make their revenue targets more reasonable (although it's still Musk, so don't expect it to be perfect now).

      1. katrinab Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: Starlink Debunked

        Point 3 is not necessarily a DUH. Better latency, certainly. There is nothing about low earth orbit that means it has to have lower bandwidth. Geostationary will certainly have more consistent bandwidth, and on the streams I've watched that have been transmitted over starlink, consistency is definitely a problem. When the bird the dish is following flies out of view, it takes a few seconds or sometimes up to a minute for the dish to find another bird to track.

        Hyperloop is clearly not going to work. Starlink clearly does work, though the majority of the world's population will have better options so the criticism about finances is definitely valid.

        1. katrinab Silver badge

          Re: Starlink Debunked

          And probably the solution to the drop-out problem is to have two dishes pointing at different birds, and it can switch between them to hand over to a different satellite.

          1. John Robson Silver badge

            Re: Starlink Debunked

            My assumption was that the rather clever phased array systems would be able to handle that without it being a serious blip. If it's taking a minute to find the next bird then that's pretty bad...

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Starlink Debunked

              Agreed. I'd imagine that either second gen unit, or a firmware upgrade, will tighten that gap such that it's barely noticeable. It's disappointing that it can't already do that. I thought the starlink sat were supposed to talk to each other, which led me to assume that as one is going out of range, it would be telling the ground stations where to look for another one. If it's not doing that, maybe that's the plan for the future. After all, it's still in testing and development phase.

              1. John Robson Silver badge

                Re: Starlink Debunked

                Current gen birds don't have the laser links (I believe there are a handful with them)

  3. Real Ale is Best
    Alien

    Aliens are coming! And the governments know...

    I think it's quite clear that hostile aliens are on their way, and so the US government has commissioned Amazon, SpaceX et al to launch a protective shield of satellites into LEO to prevent any ingress of alien craft.

    When they are done, there will be hundreds of thousands of space weapons in place, ready to bombard incoming hostiles with orbital velocity shrapnel.

    /j

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Aliens are coming! And the governments know...

      Shrapnel? Nah, starting with the next launch the satellites will all have frikkin lasers on them!

  4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "Amazon was upset about Starlink's proposals for a second-generation constellation"

    Is it just me, or is Bezos really a whiny little bitch ?

    1. Def Silver badge

      Re: "Amazon was upset about Starlink's proposals for a second-generation constellation"

      It's not just you. He is.

      I also find it monumentally amusing that Amazon has to buy rocket space from ULA because BO *still* hasn't made it to orbit after 21 years of trying.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Meanwhile last week, Amazon was upset about Starlink's proposals

    Musk must be sending out those announcements to piss off Bezos. A truly noble cause for human advancement: The War of the Pricks.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Amazons's gripes

      The more hurt that can be piled on Amazon the better IMHO.

      If Google is evil.

      The Amazon is the work of the devil incarnate. Old Baldy only needs to grow a pair of horns and it will be true.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'd get a Starlink, when they allow it to roam anywhere in the world. I'd put it on a UAV and fly it around the planet from the comfort of my chair :D

    1. Julz Silver badge

      Would that be the Unobtanium fueled UAV?

      1. FeepingCreature

        Put a solar cell on top, charge all day, fly for five minutes.

        Oceans might be a problem...

        (I've also previously considered doing a tour of the local area with a solar powered quadcopter and a SIM card, but I live in Germany - it'd get 200 meters down the road and lose connection.)

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          "Put a solar cell on top, charge all day, fly for five minutes."

          Well, it worked on Mars :-)

  7. Martin Summers Silver badge

    See this is the kind of smartphone innovation that would actually make a difference to people. Having virtually unlimited coverage even if it was just in an emergency. Along with an eventual breakthrough in battery tech, having satellite comms would be a killer feature in a smartphone. It might even tempt me to cross to the dark side and get an Apple phone for the first time ever.

    1. DS999 Silver badge

      It would be something rarely used

      Obviously it is great for emergencies - assuming you don't have an emergency inside a building or under trees. But few people would be willing to subscribe to as a regular service because even sending text messages via satellite is very expensive.

      It would be "nice to have" but I'd be surprised if it moved many people from Android to iPhone, since it isn't something you'd want to imagine yourself needing.

      Especially since it is supposedly coming in a special version of Qualcomm's cellular modem. Unless Apple secured some sort of exclusivity for that feature, you have to assume that Android flagships would start getting the same capability within a year.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: It would be something rarely used

        Here's the thing: Apple can calculate the cost of n% of iPhone users having need of an emergency satellite text message each year. They have the data. Apple, with their locked-down OS, can prevent people from using the satellite message service for events other than emergencies. If Apple, who also do consumer finance, move into health insurance, they can offset the cost of a satellite message against the huge costs of a search and rescue operation.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: It would be something rarely used

          You don't need a locked down OS to prevent people from using it at other times. Make it only able to contact 911, and use of a grey "emergency message" to your emergency contact costs some nominal fee like $1 to discourage its use in non-emergency situations - or maybe one use per year is free then it costs, on the logic few people will have more than one true "no service" emergency per year.

          I would imagine they'd have a deal with Globalstar that allows for a certain amount of traffic per year. Perhaps Globalstar even gives them that for free, figuring it is a good deal for them given that even if only 0.01% of iPhone buyers sign up for service beyond emergencies that is a big increase in their userbase paying something like $20/month for their minimum level plan. Currently people get those Spot X type devices if they go out in the wild to help them be found, the phone could perform that role instead.

          From the way it is being described it will not be that convenient, with the phone instructing you to walk around to find a place where it can see the satellites if necessary, and taking up to a minute to send a simple text message. That makes sense given the inherent restrictions of trying to send data to a satellite hundreds to thousands (if it is not directly overhead at the time) of miles away from a device with no external antenna. It won't be a substitute for a dedicated device for people who need to send messages from remote areas often, and doesn't sound like it will be capable of making calls at all.

  8. NXM

    If this worked, authoritarian governments would have to ban the phones (good luck with that) since they'd be able to bypass forced local mobile outages during protests, and allow users to organize without being monitored.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      No, that wouldn't work. The authoritarian governments would require that satellite comms companies disclose customer information to them in compliance with local laws. If the company refuses to do that, the government bans payments to them. Only those few with bank accounts outside the country or who manage to exchange cash for service through someone who does can use the service. Because so few can use the service, the phones aren't widely sold in the country.

      If the government wants to go further, they require that any phone with the feature is locked down to the satellite providers which comply or ban them outright. Buying or possessing one which doesn't comply with that regulation becomes a crime. Detecting those who have them can be done with a cheap radio surveillance device. Satellite may work everywhere, but it doesn't prevent dictators from dictating.

  9. RobThBay

    13 or X3

    Hmm... I wonder if Apple will really call it an iPhone 13? Or will they chicken and use X3 instead?

    1. katrinab Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: 13 or X3

      Or iPhone 12S?

      1. David 132 Silver badge

        Re: 13 or X3

        iPhone 0xD ?

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: 13 or X3

      I suspect they will chicken out. There seems to be higher levels of superstition in the US than one might expect. At least, C-Level think that's the case. Floor 13, room 13 etc are often "missing" in buildings and streets.

      ISTR Otis once reported that 85% of hotels have no floor designated 13 on the lift buttons/menu. There seems to be a fear that guests might refuse a booked room on a floor labelled 13, even though they will actually take a room on the 13th floor if it's labelled as 14 instead. Whether that is true of the actual guests is another matter of course.

      1. myithingwontcharge

        Re: 13 or X3

        "even though they will actually take a room on the 13th floor if it's labelled as 14 instead"

        Which strikes me as monumentally more dangerous than the irrational fear of a number. "Hello fire department? Yes I'm on the 14th floor. No the 14th. What do you mean you can't find anyone there?".

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pretty cool

    Emergency Message should result in far fewer missing noob hikers from the likes of the Appalachian Trail.

  11. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    LEO constellations – the next Uber, the next smokestack

    LEO constellations are a disaster waiting to happen but they are also a good example of how much Silicon Valley loves to move into unregulated markets and then bully regulators into silence. Unregulated markets almost guarantee network effects for first movers. One of the reasons for this is that unregulated markets often rely on unpriced or underpriced common resources in what is known as the tragedy of the commons: fisheries are a good example. Providing voice and data services via LEO is a bet that the costs of simply maintaining the satellite infrastructure will always be cheaper than the combined infrastructure and licence costs of ground-based solutions. In addition, and this is where the comparison with fisheries comes in, no one knows much about the long term consequences of LEO. Even though the orbits decay naturally, without regulation it's easier to imagine the most useful orbits filling up quickly on a first come, first served basis. And, even if the orbital decay means that there should be less junk in space, we still don't know anything about the potential consequences of lots of satellites terminating in the upper atmosphere, though the extensive use of aluminium should give cause for concern. In the absence of regulation, all profits will be privatised and all damages will be socialised.

  12. DS999 Silver badge

    If it was anyone but Kuo

    I'd say it was horsecrap. He's got a pretty good track record on iPhone rumors so he's obviously got some good sources.

    Even then I'd be kind of shocked if this is included in the iPhone 13. It would be a real feat for that to be kept secret until a few weeks before the iPhone 13 launch. Usually the rumor mill has detailed exactly what to expect to the new iPhone months in advance, down to even minor stuff. You'd expect something like this couldn't be kept under wraps too well, and could be an iPhone 14 feature we'll see a year from now.

    I think the LAA N53 band thing is probably more likely the truth. That's something you could keep "secret" until a few weeks before launch, because no one cares about yet another LTE band.

    1. BOFH in Training

      Re: If it was anyone but Kuo

      This leak could also be just to guage what the public is saying before deciding to do this or not.

      If the response seems positive, they may come out with this feature in the next or the phone after that. If the response is negative, it can be put in the back burner until it becomes a "leak" again a few years later to check again.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: If it was anyone but Kuo

        If rumors are true this is built into Qualcomm's X60 chip as a special Apple only feature, but will be included in the standard X65 chip next year (and presumably the Android SoCs that incorporate the X65 modem) There's no "gauging interest" for something that you've asked to be built in to the cellular chip you're using, or any discussion about whether to do it or not if it is going to be into the chip you're using next year whether you want it or not.

        If Apple was into leaking stuff to gauge interest, they probably would have / should have done that over their child porn photo detection thing. Maybe they still would have done it (as I'm guessing it is forced by the government given that other cloud providers have already been doing it for years) but at least they would have known the backlash to expect and could have better prepared their response.

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