Satellite phone: what is this technology for?

Satellite phone: what is this technology for?

Apple and Huawei are marketing new smartphones that can connect to satellites. A first for consumer devices. Operation, advantages, limits, price… this is what you need to know about this telephone technology.

Satellite telephony has been around since the 1970s. But until now these were bulky devices with rather expensive subscriptions used by professionals. By adding satellite communication to some of their smartphones, Apple and Huawei are making this technology accessible to the general public. An example that other manufacturers could imitate, starting with Samsung. Not to mention that Google plans to integrate this function into Android 14. But for what and at what price?

While a cell phone connects to nearby cell towers on Earth, a satellite phone connects to satellites in space. The most used satellite networks for telephony are those of the operators Inmarsat, Iridium, Thuraya and Globalstar. They are not the same ones used to get a fixed Internet connection like SpaceX’s Starlink service. However, the latter is also beginning to position itself in this market. There are then two technical scenarios. If the satellite phone communicates with another satellite phone, it will receive and transmit only via satellites. But if you want to reach a landline or mobile phone, the satellite will have to transmit the communications to a ground station that will act as a repeater.

What are the advantages of satellite phone?

Unlike the mobile network, which inevitably includes white or poorly served areas, the satellite network is capable of providing homogeneous global coverage of the entire planet. Therefore, the satellite phone can be connected from anywhere in theory. In practice, it depends on the operator’s network. But this extended coverage is its main advantage and explains why it is routinely used when the mobile network is knocked out by a natural disaster. It is also ideal for communicating from remote, inaccessible or poorly communicated places, in the middle of the ocean, in a forest, in the desert or in the high mountains, for example.

What are the disadvantages of satellite phone?

Satellites currently in service for telephony are limited in terms of capacity. Therefore, they essentially offer a voice service with little data. But the speed is low and it only allows you to send emails, text messages and download light files. Also, to connect to satellites that are far away, you need large antennas. We see them overtaking Iridium or Inmarsat phones.

The IsatPhone2 satellite phone is compatible with the Inmarsat network. ©Aliexpress

This is not possible in the case of consumer smartphones. Antennas must fit into a compact enclosure and not disfigure product lines.

Huawei’s Mate 50 smartphone connects to satellites but without a large antenna sticking out. ©Huawei

This has the consequence of further limiting the performance of the communications, even if the latter is already low initially. Thus, Apple was forced to develop a specific algorithm to divide by three the size of the messages sent by satellite from its iPhone 14.

The other disadvantage of this technology is the distance between the phone and the satellite. The more it increases, the higher the latency. Here reference is made to the time required for the data to reach the sender to the receiver. However, the satellites are located at an altitude that can vary from 700 to 36,000 km altitude depending on the operator. As for calls, this can cause echoes and delay in the conversation.

What is satellite telephony for on the iPhone 14 and Mate 50?

In 2022, two consumer mobile phones will integrate a satellite communication system for the first time. Huawei Mate 50 models can connect to satellites to send a short text message or share a location. Apple has also released an iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro capable of sending an emergency text message over the satellite network.

The iPhone 14 allows you to send an emergency message by connecting to a satellite. © apple

In both cases, these are situations in which the user is in an area not connected to the mobile network or Wi-Fi, nor is it about making a phone call or connecting to the Internet, or even receiving an SMS.

How much does a satellite phone cost?

The purchase prices of specialized satellite phones are between 800 and 2000 euros. It is also possible to rent them for short periods at prices that can amount to several hundred euros per month. Huawei Mate 50 models are available between 725 and 1885 euros. Apple’s iPhone 14s are sold between 1,169 and 1,559 euros. Samsung could do the same and, in turn, launch a smartphone that is compatible with both the mobile network and a satellite network.

What subscription for a satellite phone?

There are prepaid or subscription formulas that entitle you to a certain duration and number of calls. In general, a minute costs between 1 and 5 euros, but the rates also depend on where you are and who you are calling. Finally, you have to buy a SIM card that costs between 13 and 20 euros. Therefore, the costs are very high compared to mobile telephony. Huawei currently offers a pack of 30 free SMS per month. Apple offers a satellite subscription at no additional cost for the first two years. Pricing beyond this period has yet to be revealed.

Is satellite phone available in France?

France is fully covered by the networks of the operators Inmarsat, Iridium, Thuraya and Globalstar. And it is possible to buy all the phone models from this specialized market. But Huawei’s Mate 50 satellite connectivity is based on BeiDou’s satellite navigation system, which is only accessible in China and neighboring countries. The iPhone 14 is based on the Globalstar network. But, to begin with, only users in the United States and Canada are affected by this service, as of November 15, 2022. However, the Apple firm announced in a press release that this function would be implemented in France, Germany, Ireland and the UK in December. 2022, probably thanks to an update to iOS 16.

Will 5G integrate satellite telephony?

It is possible that soon we will no longer make the distinction between mobile network and satellite network in telephony. In fact, it is planned to integrate satellite capabilities to 5G in the next evolutions of this mobile telephony standard. The decision was made in 2019 by 3GPP, a group of standards bodies. But it will be a few more years before this is effective on our smartphones. The objective is to be able to go from a repeater antenna to a satellite antenna without interruptions and with the same quality of service. Therefore, 5G could benefit from true global coverage.

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