TAMPA, Fla. — Apple said Nov. 10 its $450 million investment in an SOS via satellite service has helped Globalstar upgrade ground stations across the United States and elsewhere with high-power antennas. 

These upgrades were needed to increase the reliability and coverage of Globalstar’s satellite constellation, Apple said ahead of the service’s debut later this month, to ensure iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro users can reach emergency crews while outside terrestrial networks.

Cobham Satcom provided the antennas to bolster all of Globalstar’s ground stations worldwide, including new sites in Nevada and Hawaii, and existing facilities in Texas, Alaska, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The SOS via satellite service will initially only be available in the United States and Canada.

Apple’s latest iPhones have an app that helps users lock onto one of Globalstar’s 24 satellites in low Earth orbit, enabling them to send an SOS text message when they are outside terrestrial coverage. 

After being received by one of Globalstar’s satellites, the message is sent to a ground station and then routed directly to emergency services — or to a relay center if the closest dispatcher cannot receive text messages.

According to Apple, iPhone users could also share their location via satellite when outside of cellular or Wi-Fi networks.

“With Apple’s infrastructure investment, we’ve grown our teams in California and elsewhere to construct, expand, and upgrade our ground stations,” Globalstar executive chair Jay Monroe said in a statement.

More than 300 Globalstar employees are supporting the new service, Apple said in the blog post. The satellite operator had 329 employees in 14 countries as of the end of December.

Apple’s $450 million investment, derived from its Advanced Manufacturing Fund, is also supporting broader investments to improve Globalstar’s network.

Globalstar has ordered a new generation of satellites from MDA Ltd. and Rocket Lab that will primarily support its partnership with Apple.

The operator has said 85% of the capacity on this new constellation will be reserved for Apple, with the remaining 15% supporting legacy services that include providing connectivity for internet of things (IoT) devices.

Apple has agreed to reimburse Globalstar for most of the costs to develop the new constellation, provided it hits certain milestones.

Apple’s emergency SOS feature will initially be a free service for compatible iPhones, although fees could be added later as more bandwidth is added to the network for additional capabilities.

Direct-to-smartphone traction

While Apple and Globalstar are leading the charge to establish a direct-to-smartphone market, others chasing this opportunity are also gaining traction. 

Spanish connectivity startup Sateliot recently said it has secured a launch deal with SpaceX to deploy its first operational satellite early next year. It is the first of 250 satellites that Sateliot has proposed to connect IoT devices, and eventually smartphones, in remote areas.

SpaceX also wants to enter this market. The company plans to use its Starlink broadband satellites to connect with unmodified smartphones to enable services starting with text as early as 2024.

SpaceX is looking to expand partnerships with mobile operators beyond T-Mobile in the U.S. to provide global services in 2025, SpaceX senior director of satellite engineering Sara Spangelo said Nov. 9.

Spangelo told the Connecting the World from the Skies conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that more than 50 telcos have reached out about partnering with SpaceX to provide direct-to-smartphone services.

She said several potential partnerships are in the final stages of negotiations, and expects SpaceX to secure three to five of them by around the beginning of 2023.

Viasat, Starlink’s satellite broadband rival, also gave more details about its plan to compete with direct-to-smartphone players during Nov. 8 financial results.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...