Gadgets & Tech

Qualcomm’s going toe-to-toe with Apple’s satellite messaging feature


Android phones will soon be getting a feature similar to — and perhaps even more powerful than — Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite. Qualcomm has announced that its new processors and modems will allow phones to communicate with the Iridium satellite network, letting users send and receive messages even in areas without cell coverage.

The feature, called Snapdragon Satellite, will be available in phones that have both Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor and its X70 Modem system, along with some additional radios. Phones that support it should be “launched in select regions starting in the second half of 2023,” according to the company’s press release, and there are several manufacturers working on designs, according to Francesco Grilli, a Qualcomm spokesperson who helped conduct a briefing for journalists.

For now, the feature will likely only be available in flagship Android phones, as Qualcomm’s only including the tech in its premium chips. Companies that want to add it to their phones will work directly with Qualcomm to figure out the software and hardware, but they shouldn’t have to build new relationships with Iridium, according to Grilli. To the satellites, phones with the tech will look like any other Iridium-enabled devices. As for who will pay for the messages, “the cost of the satellite-based messaging service and dependent services will depend on OEMs and service providers and how they choose to offer the service,” according to Grilli.

At first, Snapdragon Satellite will be limited to use in emergency situations, letting you contact someone for help even if you’re in a remote area without cell service. According to Grilli, “Snapdragon Satellite leverages Garmin Response.” When you send an SOS, “response coordinators immediately see the customer’s Latitude/Longitude in their proprietary mapping and response coordination software to determine the appropriate agency to coordinate the rescue.”

Qualcomm says that, eventually, it’ll support “premium messaging,” which will likely cost extra and will have to be implemented by OEMs, cell carriers, or other over-the-top service providers. So far, this isn’t something Apple offers; you can only send texts via satellite using its SOS feature.

This example from Qualcomm is dire but shows the types of situations where it’d be very good to have this tech.
GIF: Qualcomm

While Qualcomm says the emergency service will be free or very cheap, it hasn’t provided details yet on how much it’ll cost you if you just want to be able to text your friends from remote areas, like a hiking trail, ski lift, or even a boat in the middle of the ocean.

Once that service becomes available, however, Qualcomm says you’ll be able to use it with your regular phone number. (That likely won’t be the case for emergency use, but it matters less there.) Grilli said this feature was “a lot of work,” and I believe it — my dedicated satellite messenger from Garmin, which also uses the Iridium network and has a monthly service fee of at least $11.95, can’t do that. Garmin even warns that the phone number people get texts from may change from time to time, meaning that, practically speaking, I have to initiate conversations if I want to have them.

Meanwhile, if I were out in the woods with a phone that had Snapdragon Satellite, I could theoretically just press a button to check for messages that had come in since I last saw a cell tower. Grilli did imply that you’ll be able to set up a list of people who are allowed to text you when you’re off the grid, which could be a useful feature; there’s a chance that some plans will charge per message sent and received, and you probably wouldn’t want to spend money to get a spam text or to hear from people whose messages could wait until you’re back online.

While details are sparse on what it’ll be like to actually send and receive satellite messages, it sounds like the experience will be similar to Apple’s in that you’ll have to follow instructions on your phone to point it toward a satellite. According to Grilli, your phone will be able to predict where Iridium’s satellites are months in advance thanks to the way its constellation orbits the Earth. When you go to connect to one, it’ll use GPS and other measurements to determine where you need to be facing.

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Qualcomm’s example UI for satellite positioning does seem to ask for more accuracy compared to Apple’s.
GIF: Qualcomm

Grilli says you won’t necessarily have to hold your phone in the air to get signal, though it may be required in certain situations. Once you have a lock on the satellite, he says it’ll take around three to 10 seconds to send or receive messages. As someone with satellite messenger experience, that’s impressive. I’ve waited minutes for my Garmin InReach to send out messages, though that usually only happens under tree cover; we’ll have to see how Qualcomm’s tech holds up in similar situations.

For now, Qualcomm says that the feature will just be for messaging. “We don’t want to duplicate voice services or ISP data,” said Grilli, who also said that trying to turn a regular smartphone into a full satellite phone would likely require an external antenna.

During its announcement, the company made a big deal of the fact that it’s working with Iridium specifically, saying that its choice of network lets messaging work “literally anywhere in the world,” as long as this type of feature is legal in the area. That could be a big deal — Apple’s version, which uses Globalstar’s satellites, is currently only available in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK, and when T-Mobile announced its “Coverage Above and Beyond” messaging in partnership with SpaceX, it said the service will cover “everywhere in the continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters.” Qualcomm’s promising much more than that.

Part of what makes that possible is that Iridium’s low Earth orbit satellites can talk to each other, not just to base stations on the ground. That means that messages can go up to space, then back down to Earth even if the specific satellite your phone is communicating with doesn’t have a direct line to a terrestrial data center. SpaceX is currently testing similar tech for its Starlink constellation, but it’s not something that every satellite provider has.

Don’t expect this feature in the Pixel 8

While it seems likely that many handset manufacturers would be thrilled to be able to buy satellite connectivity features from Qualcomm, there’s at least one company that probably won’t be introducing a phone with the feature: Google. When I asked if Snapdragon Satellite would be available on phones with a Qualcomm modem but another company’s processor, Grilli said that he didn’t think there was “an interest in going that direction.” He also said that it “requires tight integration between the SoC and the modem,” especially when it comes to aligning your device to the satellite.

Given that Google uses its own custom Tensor chips for its phones, that seems like bad news for Pixel owners hoping that their next phone would have this feature. (Though it’s always possible that the company is working on its own version so it can keep up with the competition.)

It’ll also be interesting to see what Samsung does. While it uses Qualcomm chips in its flagship phones, it often equips the Galaxy S series with its own Exynos chips in certain regions. Announcing that a potentially lifesaving feature won’t be coming to certain countries could be pretty awkward — though, to be fair, Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite’s limited availability shows that the tightrope can be walked.

If Google and Samsung can wait, they may not have to build in this sort of functionality at all. Cell carriers have also been teaming up with satellite providers and are promising to provide messaging service to any 5G phone, even if it doesn’t have specialized radios. T-Mobile says it’ll start testing it and SpaceX’s tech by the end of the year, and other satellite-to-phone companies like AST and Lynk have said that they’re in talks with other carriers around the world.

It seems likely that we could end up with a situation where some phones have multiple ways to communicate with satellites, either using dedicated hardware like Apple and Qualcomm’s or via traditional cellular bands thanks to special satellites and carrier plans. Given how these services are mainly being pitched because they’re useful in emergencies, that’s a good thing; having a backup is usually worthwhile.

For now, though, I’m happy to hear that people are going to start getting choices when it comes to buying a phone with satellite communication built in. Apple’s been bragging about how its version of the feature has already been saving lives, but people should have the option to get something similar even if they’d rather use an Android phone.

Update January 5th, 4:02PM ET: Updated attribution for two quotes from Qualcomm to reflect who wrote them instead of who sent them.



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