If you’re the type to read into Apple Event taglines, next week’s “Far Out” event certainly feels… space-y. It’s led Apple prognosticators to revive theories that Apple may be working on satellite features for emergency communications — both for the iPhone and perhaps the rumored Apple Watch Pro. Since the Apple Watch Pro is meant to be a Garmin competitor, satellite features could make it a real contender in the multisport GPS watch space.
There’s a lot that Apple needs to do in order to truly compete in this space. Multiday battery life and beefing up durability are numbers 1 and 2 on the list. The competition — Garmin, Polar, Coros — can run laps around the Apple Watch in these two areas. But if there’s one area where Apple already has the lead, it’s emergency calling features and fall detection.
Reliable emergency communication is important and potentially life-saving to intrepid adventurers. GPS and LTE connectivity have improved over the years, but there are still many remote areas where you can’t get a signal. Even experienced hikers, campers, and endurance athletes can get lost under those circumstances or find themselves in a bind if they get injured in a cellular dead zone. That’s why many carry satellite phones or Garmin’s inReach devices, which are handheld two-way satellite communicators that also have location-sharing features. These devices, however, can be bulky and add weight when athletes almost always prefer to remain light and nimble.
Right now, the problem is Apple’s emergency contact features depend on LTE connectivity. That makes it more reliable in everyday situations than for outdoors enthusiasts. Likewise, Garmin has fall detection and emergency contact features on many of its smartwatches — but they also rely on your phone for signal or need to be paired with an inReach device.
At the moment, some high-end multisport watches do have satellite features. The thing is, they’re more focused on improving location accuracy than emergency communication. Watches like the Garmin Fenix 7 and the Coros Vertix 2 use dual-frequency satellite communication or multi-band GPS. GPS originally had two frequencies: L1 for public use and L2 for military purposes. However, there’s a newer frequency called L5. It’s not at 100 percent just yet, but watches that support dual-frequency satellite communication boast improved location accuracy in challenging environments. They just can’t yet relay that information unless your phone also has a signal.
A smartwatch that could have both LTE and satellite connectivity for emergency communications and location sharing? It’s not hard to see why that would appeal to outdoors enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that the first iteration of the Apple Watch Pro will get satellite features. In his most recent Power On newsletter, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman noted that while Apple had internally discussed adding satellite features to the Apple Watches, it would “make sense for a future version of the new more rugged Apple Watch Pro.”
That’s a smidge disappointing, though not wholly unexpected. Even if Apple is capable of creating hardware that can support satellite connectivity, it still has to play ball with wireless carriers. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo claimed the feature was finished for the iPhone 13, but Apple couldn’t figure out the business end of making it a reality.
Still, it’s a tantalizing prospect given that Apple still has to play catch-up on the multiday battery life and durability front. Of course, it also depends on the so-called Pro doing well enough to get a second or third iteration. But if Apple can make it work? Now that would cause a stir.