Qualcomm, Iridium will connect more smartphones to satellites this year


LAS VEGAS — In a broad stretch of desert 30 minutes from the glitz of the Strip, Qualcomm vice president Francesco Grilli pecks out a message on a partially translucent brick of a smartphone, then holds it up to the sky. Moments later, the text he just sent arrives on his other, more conventional phone.

The scene was, honestly, a little dull. But that’s because the interesting part — the satellite that received the text and routed it to a normal phone — was out of sight, about 485 miles overhead.

Tucked away inside that brick were the same satellite connectivity parts that will appear in a wave of new smartphones starting in the second half of 2023. (Don’t worry: They won’t be any chunkier than usual.) And unlike Apple’s iPhoneswhich offers satellite service only in case of emergency, devices that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite technology will be able to send standard text messages via satellite to anyone — not just emergency responders, Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“For you to be able to say, ‘No matter where I am, I can send a message and I am connected,’ I think that’s powerful,” he said.

This push into satellite communications — powered by a partnership with Iridium Communications, which operates a constellation of 66 satellites — isn’t a new concept.

Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite feature lives in six countries. A partnership between T-Mobile and Elon Musk’s SpaceX is expected to bear fruit sometime this year, and AT&T is exploring phone-to-satellite connectivity with an outfit called AST SpaceMobile.

The catch with some of those satellite features is that they have built-in audiences — you have to be an iPhone owner or pay T-Mobile for your wireless service. Qualcomm and Iridium’s vision is a little different: Any phone maker that buys the former’s premium chipsets for its devices can pay a little extra to connect to the latter’s satellites.

And because Qualcomm’s chipsets are commonly used in smartphones made by Samsung, Motorola and other brands sold around the world, many more people will be able to fire off messages from cellular dead zones starting this year.

But that’s not to say anyone with a Qualcomm-powered phone will get to try this feature. To start, it will be available only in phones that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, a high-powered package meant for expensive smartphone models. Over time, Qualcomm aims to bake satellite connectivity into more-moderately priced chipsets and phones, but Amon would not say when.

Meanwhile, some of the first smartphones to use the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset have gone on sale overseas, well before the satellite features are slated to go live. While the chipsets in those early devices contain many of the radio components needed to talk to Iridium’s satellites, they do not contain all of them — which means they can’t be updated to use satellite features down the road.

In other words, if you’re thinking about buying a non-Apple smartphone and want to be able to get in touch with friends and loved ones when you’re nowhere near a cell tower, you may want to hold off for a while.

That wait, however, could be worth it — and that’s mostly thanks to Iridium. The McLean, Va.-based company has been putting satellites into orbit since the late 1990s, and the way those satellites are oriented around Earth means you’ll be able to fire off a message from research bases in the Antarctic, the middle of the Indian Ocean and beyond.

“There is never a spot on Earth that doesn’t have coverage,” Iridium CEO Matthew Desch said in an interview. As long as you have a clear view of the sky, the only situation where you wouldn’t be able to send a satellite message is if you tried somewhere it’s prohibited by the government — like Iran and North Korea.

By contrast, Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite operates only in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Ireland — plus a swath of coastal water around them, if there is any. Even if you have an iPhone 14 that’s capable of communicating with a satellite, you can’t do it unless you’re physically in one of those countries.

How you may use satellite connections

The ability to stay in touch anywhere in the world with a standard (if pricey) smartphone sure seems appealing — but how do you actually use it?

That really depends on what you’re trying to do. If you want to contact help while away from cellular networks, there are two options: You can start the SOS process from your phone’s lock screen or by trying to call emergency services. (There may be more places on your phone where you initiate an SOS, but that’s a decision Qualcomm is leaving to device makers.)

After that, the messages you send will be routed to a response center in Texas owned by Garmin — yes, the GPS and fitness-watch people — where operators will collect information and coordinate with emergency responders. The costs involved, however, aren’t set in stone: Qualcomm’s Grilli said emergency messages “will not be very expensive,” if they cost anything at all.

The story is slightly different for person-to-person messages. When you try to send a text via satellite, the process is straightforward — type your message and follow an on-screen guide to make sure your phone is pointing at a satellite. Desch, Iridium’s CEO, says that each of the satellites completes a full orbit in about 100 minutes and that it shouldn’t take more than eight to 12 minutes before one moves into range.

But those messages will almost certainly cost you, although it’s not clear how much just yet. That’s another decision Qualcomm will point to device makers, as well as to any messaging services (such as WhatsApp or Telegram) that want to embrace satellite communication.

What’s also not clear is how customers will be able to choose between different satellite services if their phone supports more than one.

Even as key questions about the cost and experience of chatting via satellite linger, Qualcomm and Iridium are looking forward to the next step: making sure satellite communication isn’t limited to our phones.

“We talked about phones, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be your laptop,” Amon said, before turning his attention to another crucial class of products. “Think about the ability to notify that an air bag has been deployed, or the ability to call emergency services, or to be able to remotely unlock your car.”

For now, it is not clear if Qualcomm and Iridium are actively courting the Dells and General Motors of the world. But in terms of closing the gap between satellites and the other products we rely on every day, the wait may be shorter than you would expect.

“I think it’s not unrealistic to think that, by next year, we could have the opportunity to have other types of [supported] devices,” Amon said. “We’re working on it.”

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