Apple is adding a limited form of satellite connectivity to new iPhones that lets users send an SOS even when they’re off the grid, no dish required. While it won’t allow ordinary data, voice, or text, it will alert emergency services with your circumstances and location.
In case of an injury in the backcountry or some such situation, users can activate the emergency SOS feature if they have an iPhone 14 or 14 Pro, both of which have an updated wireless chipset that allows it.
The new feature is different from the satellite-based data and text connectivity incoming from Lynk and, assuming they can get it to work, T-Mobile and Starlink. Those are essentially orbital cell towers that are strong enough to reach and receive signal from the surface, while Apple is reportedly partnering with Globalstar, which is a traditional satellite connectivity operator that works using bands that normally require a special antenna.
Because of this, users will need to actually point their phone at the satellite, which obviously is too small to see — so Apple made a little orientation app that helps you point it in the right direction. But bandwidth is incredibly limited, so once you’re locked in, you choose between a few preset messages: what’s the emergency, is anyone hurt, etc. These minimize the data involved and so will take less time to send; your battery level, location and medical information will automatically be sent as well.
At best the process should take about 15 seconds, but if there’s any tree cover or the alignment isn’t good, expect it to take a few minutes.
This process relies on using PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points). Some of these support text to 911, and in that case, users of the emergency SOS can have a two-way conversation with local services. If the connected PSAP does not support this feature, Apple built and is staffing local relay stations that will act as intermediaries with emergency services.
The service, first available in the U.S. and Canada starting in November, will be free for two years, Apple said, though it did not get into what it might cost after that period. By that point Lynk and Starlink will likely have their services up and running, and the former at least aims to provide emergency text and SOS capability for free across the globe.