what is this technology for?

Apple and Huawei are marketing new smartphones that can connect to satellites. A first for consumer devices. Operation, advantages, limits, price… here is what you need to know about this telephony technology.

Satellite telephony has existed since the 1970s. But until now it concerned bulky devices with fairly expensive subscriptions used by professionals. By adding satellite communication to some of their smartphones, Apple and Huawei are making this technology accessible to the general public. An example that could be imitated by other manufacturers, starting with Samsung. Not to mention the fact that Google plans to integrate this function in Android 14. But for what and at what price?

While a mobile phone connects to nearby cell towers on Earth, a satellite phone connects to satellites in space. The satellite networks most used for telephony are those of the operators Inmarsat, Iridium, Thuraya and Globalstar. They are not the same as those used to obtain a fixed connection to the Internet such as SpaceX’s Starlink service. However, the latter is also beginning to position itself in this market. There are then two technical scenarios. If the satellite phone contacts another satellite phone, it will receive and transmit via satellites only. But if he wants to reach a fixed or mobile phone, the satellite will have to transmit the communications to a ground station which will serve as a relay.

What are the advantages of the satellite phone?

Unlike the mobile network, which inevitably includes white or poorly served areas, the satellite network is able to provide overall homogeneous coverage of the entire planet. The satellite phone can therefore connect from anywhere in theory. In practice, it depends on the operator’s network. But this extended coverage is its main advantage and this explains why it is systematically used when the mobile network is put out of service by a natural disaster. It is also ideal for communicating from remote, inaccessible or poorly served places, in the middle of the ocean, in a forest, in the desert or in high mountains, for example.

What are the disadvantages of the satellite phone?

The satellites currently in service for telephony are limited in terms of capacity. They therefore essentially offer a voice service with little data. But the speed is low and just allows you to send emails, text messages and download light files. In addition, to connect to satellites that are far away, you need large antennas. We see them overtaking Iridium or Inmarsat telephones.

The IsatPhone2 satellite phone compatible with the Inmarsat network. ©Aliexpress

This is not possible in the case of consumer smartphones. The antennas should fit into a compact enclosure and not disfigure the lines of the product.

Huawei’s Mate 50 smartphone connects to satellites but without a large antenna sticking out. © Huawei

This has the consequence of further limiting the throughput of the communications, even though the latter is already low initially. Thus, Apple was forced to develop a specific algorithm to divide by three the size of messages sent by satellite from its iPhone 14.

The other disadvantage of this technology is the distance between the telephone and the satellite. The higher it increases, the greater the latency. Reference is made here to the time required for the data to reach the sender to the receiver. However, the satellites are located at an altitude which can vary from 700 to 36,000 km in altitude depending on the operator. Regarding calls, this can cause echoes and delay in the conversation.

What is the use of satellite telephony on the iPhone 14 and Mate 50?

In 2022, two consumer mobile phones will integrate a satellite communication system for the first time. Huawei’s Mate 50 models are able to connect to satellites to send a short text message or share a location. Apple has also released an iPhone 14 and an iPhone 14 Pro capable of sending an emergency text message via the satellite network.

The iPhone 14 allows you to send an emergency message by connecting to a satellite. © Apple

In both cases, these are situations where the user is in an area not connected to the mobile network or Wi-Fi. There is also no question of making a phone call or connecting to the Internet, or even to receive an SMS.

How much does a satellite phone cost?

The purchase prices of specialized satellite phones are between 800 and 2000 euros. It is also possible to rent them for short periods at prices that can amount to several hundred euros for a month. Huawei’s Mate 50 models are available between 725 and 1885 euros. Apple’s iPhone 14 are sold between 1169 to 1559 euros. Samsung could follow suit and in turn release a smartphone that is compatible with both the mobile network and a satellite network.

What subscription for a satellite phone?

There are prepaid or subscription formulas that entitle you to a certain duration and quantity of calls. Overall, a minute costs between 1 and 5 euros but the rates also depend on where you are and who you are calling. Finally, you have to buy a SIM card which costs between 13 and 20 euros. The costs are therefore very substantial compared to mobile telephony. Huawei offers a pack of 30 free SMS per month at the moment. Apple offers a satellite subscription at no additional cost during the first two years. Prices beyond this period have not yet been disclosed.

Is the satellite phone available in France?

France is fully covered by the networks of the operators Inmarsat, Iridium, Thuraya and Globalstar. And it is possible to buy all models of phones from this specialized market. But Huawei’s Mate 50 satellite connectivity relies on BeiDou’s satellite navigation system which is only accessible in China and neighboring countries. The iPhone 14 relies on Globalstar’s network. But only users in the United States and Canada are affected by this service to begin with, since November 15, 2022. The apple firm however announced in a press release that this function would be deployed in France, Germany, Ireland and the UK in December 2022, likely thanks to an iOS 16 update.

Will 5G integrate satellite telephony?

We may soon no longer make the distinction between mobile network and satellite network in telephony. It is indeed planned to integrate satellite capacities to 5G in the next evolutions of this mobile telephony standard. The decision was made in 2019 by 3GPP, a group of standardization bodies. But it will take a few more years before this is effective on our smartphones. The objective is to be able to switch from a relay antenna to a satellite without interruption and with the same quality of service. 5G could thus benefit from true global coverage.

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