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For Apple and other companies, satellites plus cellphones add up to a new frontier

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Apple emergency SOS
Apple’s iPhone 14 is built to link up with satellites for an emergency SOS. (Apple Video)

Today’s big iPhone reveal adds Apple to the list of companies aiming to combine the power of satellite communications with the power of everyday cellphones — a list that includes other tech heavyweights such as T-Mobile and SpaceX, Amazon and Verizon, OneWeb and AT&T.

Also on the list: a startup that’s carving out a niche on the satellite-cellular frontier.

“We’re years ahead of anybody else, and so we’re in a great position,” said Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Virginia-based Lynk. “We’ve been talking for a while about what a huge business this is, and a bunch of other companies are now starting to wake up.”

Specialized satellite phones have been around for decades, but the new crop of space-based telecom services is meant to make use of the billions of smartphones that are produced for the general market.

In some scenarios — for example, with the Amazon-Verizon and OneWeb-AT&T deals — telecom operators could use satellites to connect with cell towers on the back end, in remote areas where it isn’t practical to run fiber cables. That’s what’s known as cellular backhaul.

In other scenarios, companies are providing antenna-equipped terminals that can select between traditional cellular service and satellite service when voice/data links are needed at remote sites — or when a disaster cripples cell service. That’s what Kirkland, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp. is doing with its hybrid satellite-cellular system.

The scenario that’s getting the most attention nowadays involves direct-to-phone satellite communications: Instead of going through a cell tower or ground-based, antenna-equipped terminals, signals can be beamed back and forth directly between satellites in low Earth orbit and the iPhone or Android phone in your hand.

That direct satellite link would serve as a last-resort connection if the cellphone user is stuck without any other sort of coverage — for example, if you’re lost on a mountain trail, or stuck with a flat tire on a rural road. That’s what Apple will do with its new iPhone 14, and what T-Mobile is aiming to do with SpaceX’s Starlink network. “It’s going to massively improve people’s convenience, and it’s going to save lives,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said when the T-Mobile-SpaceX deal was revealed.

Apple’s emergency SOS plan is aimed squarely at safety: The iPhone 14 will be programmed to show you where to point your phone to link up with overhead satellites in Globalstar’s constellation. There’ll be an interface that can guide you through a series of buttons to send the appropriate alert, whether you’re injured, stranded or lost.

On the back end, Apple and its partners have set up a system to deal with 9-1-1 issues when needed — for example, to relay a text message to emergency agencies via voice. And if you’re in an area without cell coverage, you can send your location to loved ones via Apple’s FindMy feature.

“It took years to make this vision a reality,” Ashley Williams, Apple’s manager for satellite modeling and simulation, said during today’s reveal. Apple’s iPhone 14 hits the market this month, but the satellite-based emergency SOS feature won’t be available until November.

You might think all these high-profile deals would make a startup CEO like Lynk’s Miller nervous. For the past five years, Miller and his team have been gearing up to provide direct-to-phone satellite service for texting — a concept that only now seems to be taking hold. The truth is, Miller couldn’t be more pleased.

“When you talk to people, and this is the first time they ever hear of it, they’re going, ‘Well, gosh, this is really new. Why have I never heard of it before?’ And so, people are naturally skeptical,” he told GeekWire. “But when a bunch of other really smart people start jumping in and doing it, that eliminates that question.”

Lynk has already launched a series of test satellites, and in April, its first commercial-grade “cell tower in space” went into orbit with an assist from SpaceX. Three more satellites are due to go up later this year, clearing the way for commercial service.

Some regulatory and technical hurdles remain, but Miller said his company already has 15 contracts with mobile network operators around the world ready to go. Most of Lynk’s telecom partners intend to offer satellite connectivity on a premium “day pass” basis. Others will “allow all their users to get our service as part of their plan for free,” Miller said. (Apple says its emergency SOS plan will be free to iPhone 14 purchasers for the first two years.)

Even though Lynk is focusing exclusively on store-and-forward texting for now, Miller thinks the satellite-cellular market will be easily big enough to accommodate his company as well as other players.

Texas-based AST SpaceMobile is due to join the fray in the 2023-2024 time frame with a space-based cellular broadband network that should be accessible to standard mobile phones. In July, AST SpaceMobile and Nokia announced a five-year partnership to develop technologies for 4G and 5G connectivity. Real-world trials could begin as early as this year with the launch of a test satellite.

And on the eve of Apple’s announcement, China’s Huawei Technologies said its next flagship smartphone will let users send short messages and map out routes via the BeiDou navigation satellite system.

As limited as they are, Apple’s newly announced plans for emergency SOS texting could fire up the market for satellite messaging even further, Lynk’s Miller said.

“They’ll whet people’s appetite. … We think there’s many orders of magnitude more messaging for regular commercial service, and it will get people to say they want more,” Miller said. “It’ll just get a huge number of people jazzed about this service, and as the leader in this, it’s our job to bring that to the world.”

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