From iPhone to Pixel: Satellite features are on the rise, but why are they not standard yet?

From iPhone to Pixel: Satellite features are on the rise, but why are they not standard yet?
Chatter about the upcoming Android 15, packed with satellite connectivity features, is picking up steam. With every new leak, it sure seems like we are in for some fresh additions when the OS debuts later this year.

Not too long ago, code uncovered within Google Messages hinted at new satellite messaging capabilities, allowing users to send texts from virtually anywhere. And now, buried within the code, lies a hidden new satellite feature for the Android version of Google Maps.
This addition will allow users to leverage satellite connectivity for location updates every 15 minutes, up to five times a day – perfect for those off-the-grid adventures where cellular connectivity is scarce.
We might get the scoop on all this during Google I/O on May 14, where the company is expected to unveil some of Android's new satellite-based features. Then again, Google might hold off until October when the Pixel 9 series is rumored to drop. The latter actually makes more sense since special hardware might be needed, and what better stage to debut it than on the upcoming Pixel lineup?

With so many satellite features on the horizon, I couldn't help but wonder: why aren't they already standard on all our smartphones? What is holding manufacturers back from embracing satellite connectivity? Let's delve into it.

From Sputnik to smartphones

Satellite communication isn't exactly new. We've been dreaming about it since the days of Sputnik and all that jazz. But back then, it was clunky, pricey, and about as portable as a refrigerator. Not exactly pocket-friendly, if you catch my drift. 

Early satellite communication required large antennas and was primarily used by the military and for some commercial applications, such as live television broadcasts. Early satellites like Syncom 3 (1964) made history by transmitting the 1964 Tokyo Olympics live to a global audience, showcasing the potential for satellite broadcasting.
Fast forward to the '90s, and Motorola dropped the mic with Iridium, the OG global satellite communications system. But to use it, you needed a phone the size of a brick.

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Ever since, satellite phones have been available on the market, offering a lifeline for professionals, travelers, and anyone venturing off the grid to stay connected and ensure their safety.

However, just a couple of years ago, back in 2022, satellite connectivity started gaining popularity. Who gets the credit? Well, it is Apple with the launch of its iPhone 14 series, allowing folks to send SOS messages even in the middle of nowhere.

In a sense, this kickstarted the trend of satellite features making their way into our everyday sidekicks, our smartphones. For example, Huawei introduced support for satellite calls with its Mate 60 Pro last year.
So, there is definitely a push for broader satellite connectivity in phones. As already mentioned, Google is gearing up to add satellite features to Android 15 and Google Maps, while companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are sending up constellations for even wider coverage. So, with the tech pretty advanced already, why isn't satellite connectivity standard on all smartphones?

What is holding back satellite connectivity from becoming standard?

Looking at it, there are a couple of reasons why satellite connectivity hasn't become a standard feature on every phone yet:

  • Hardware differences: Your regular phone gets its signal from cell towers, while satellite communication needs extra hardware. Tossing in these components would jack up the cost and bulk of most phones.
  • Limited use cases: Most of us are city dwellers surrounded by a sea of cell towers. Satellite features are like that fancy kitchen gadget you use once a year – nice to have but hardly essential. So, for most folks, cell networks cover all their connectivity needs. Satellite features would mainly benefit folks in remote areas or emergencies, which might not justify the added cost for everyone.
  • Companies don’t want to: While Apple dipped its toes into basic satellite features with the iPhone 14, the Android side has hit some bumps. Qualcomm's collab with Iridium to develop broader satellite tech for Android phones, dubbed Snapdragon Satellite, hit a snag in late 2023. Why? Lack of interest from the industry - no smartphone maker hopped on board to use it.

But why were Android smartphone makers hesitant to jump on board with Qualcomm's tech, especially when the chip was all set and tested? Well, there are a few reasons why manufacturers might be holding back on incorporating even limited satellite features into more phones at the moment:

  • Cost: Adding the necessary hardware for even basic satellite connectivity increases the phone's manufacturing cost. Since most users wouldn't need it daily, manufacturers might be hesitant to raise the price for everyone.
  • Power consumption: Satellite communication uses more battery power than connection through cell towers. Manufacturers are always striving for longer battery life and this feature could be a drawback for some users.
  • Market need: Unless there is a clear market demand for this specific feature, manufacturers might prioritize resources towards improvements to existing features or developing entirely new ones.
  • Focus on wider solutions: Apple's current satellite features lean towards emergencies. Now, Google's rumored life-saving satellite connectivity feature is also emergency-centric. Perhaps a broader and more practical application than just individual location updates could nudge more companies to hop on the new satellite feature train.

Despite the hurdles, satellite connectivity in phones shows promise for enhancing global connectivity, beefing up safety measures in remote areas, and possibly unlocking new applications we haven't even dreamed up yet. As the technology matures and standardizes, it is likely to become a more widespread feature.

And with all the leaks and rumors hinting at Android 15 jumping on the satellite connectivity bandwagon, it is just a matter of time before we see more features like the ones teased in the Google Maps code popping up. And hey, I don't know about you, but I am totally on board with it.

I'd be thrilled to have the choice to share my location, make calls, or send texts even without a cellular connection. I get it, in 2024, most of us are constantly hooked up to 5G or Wi-Fi. But having that backup satellite connection? It's definitely comforting, don't you agree?

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