As Apple’s iPhone 14 event gets closer, rumors continue to swirl around the phone’s potential ability to provide emergency communications via a satellite network. On Monday, noted analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said that Apple had “completed hardware tests for this feature” with the iPhone 14, but it would have to negotiate a business model with carriers if it wants to include it.
According to Kuo, “whether iPhone 14 will offer satellite communication service depends on whether Apple and operators can settle the business model.” Kuo says this hurdle may have already delayed the feature once — according to him, the hardware that would’ve let the iPhone 13 communicate with satellites was finished, but Apple couldn’t figure out the business end with carriers. Kuo and others famously predicted that the feature could show up in the 13, which didn’t end up happening.
According to Kuo’s latest prediction, the iPhone will “eventually” have satellite communications, but it’s “hard to predict precisely when.” If the feature now hangs on negotiations with carriers, which could be easier to keep under wraps, it makes sense that it’ll be harder to track its progress by analyzing the supply chain or code from betas.
Carriers may have an incentive to play hardball with Apple, given their interest in offering their own satellite connectivity features and plans. Last Thursday, T-Mobile announced that it was working with SpaceX to launch its own satellite-based emergency communications system, which it says will work with many existing 5G-capable phones. Meanwhile, AT&T is working with a company called AST SpaceMobile, which aims to provide broadband by beaming it to phones via satellite. Verizon has also partnered with Amazon’s Kuiper satellite project. However, it seems to be focused on providing service to remote cell towers where it wouldn’t be practical to run fiber or cable.
Since satellite networks typically work worldwide, Apple may have to strike deals with international carriers and potentially governments, as well.
Harold Feld, an analyst at Public Knowledge, doesn’t necessarily think carriers will see this as a conflict of interest, though, given how different the tech is and how far in the future things like T-Mobile’s “Coverage Above and Beyond” may be — the company says testing is slated to start by the end of next year. “There’s no reason from the carrier perspective why this should be a problem unless they have some kind of exclusive deal with SpaceX not to use any other satellite service,” he said. He noted, however, “it’s kind of hard to know without knowing the business arrangements.”
Given Kuo and others’ predictions that Apple is working with a company that already has its own satellite communications network, it seems unlikely that this is a situation where Apple would need technology or spectrum rights from the carriers. However, during its presentation, T-Mobile said it would have to work with messaging app developers to make their systems compatible with its satellite tech — if Apple wants to use the carrier’s SMS and voice systems in its satellite communications feature, it may be a similar situation.
Feld offered a few ideas about what details Apple could have to hammer out with carriers. “It’s something that potentially carriers might want to include in their advertising, in which case there may be some negotiations with Apple as to who gets credit for it, and the nature of their advertising, whether the carriers can include it in their coverage maps,” he said. “There are a lot of things that go into this.” Even things like whose name displays when the phone is connecting to satellites instead of cell towers could play into negotiations.
One other question that could hold things up — between the carrier, Apple, the satellite provider, and iPhone users, who ends up paying for satellite messaging, and how? “In the case of T-Mobile and SpaceX, that’s fairly straightforward. It looks like, at least from what little we know, that would be upfront to T-Mobile with T-Mobile doing the billing, which is the way carriers like it traditionally. They like to maintain the relationship with the customer and include everything on one on one bill.” Feld said. “If Apple is working this deal separately with Globalstar and it’s going to bill for it separately, that may be something that is a point of contention with the carriers.”
He also said that, from a technical and legal standpoint, Apple could include the chip without cooperation from the carriers. “Apple could always say, ‘Yeah, we’re sticking this chip in. What are you going to do, kick us off your network?’” Feld doesn’t think that’ll happen, though. “But the carriers are the guys you play with long-term. You want to make sure that your relationships with them are… friendly may be too much to hope for, but that you maintain good business relationships with the carriers, that there are no surprises, that they have an understanding.”