Soon, Android phones will have a function that is comparable to, and possibly even more potent than, Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite. The Iridium satellite network will be used by Qualcomm’s new processors and modems to enable phone communication, enabling customers to send and receive messages even in places without cellular coverage.

In addition to certain extra radios, smartphones with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor and X70 Modem system will also have the Snapdragon Satellite function. According to the company’s press release, phones that enable it should “launch in select locations starting in the second half of 2023,” and other manufacturers are working on designs, according to Francesco Grilli, a Qualcomm official who assisted in leading a briefing for media.

Due to Qualcomm’s decision to only include the technology in its top-tier chips, the functionality will probably initially only be available on flagship Android phones. According to Grilli, businesses that wish to integrate it into their phones would work directly with Qualcomm to develop the necessary software and hardware. However, they shouldn’t need to establish new connections with Iridium. Phones equipped with the technology will seem to satellites to be identical to other Iridium-enabled smartphones. Regarding the question of who will pay for the messages, Grilli stated that “the cost of the satellite-based messaging service and dependent services will rely on OEMs and service providers and how they choose to deliver the service.”

Snapdragon Satellite will initially only be available for usage in emergencies, enabling you to call for assistance even if you’re in a distant location without cell connection. Snapdragon Satellite “leverages Garmin Response,” claims Grilli. “Response coordinators immediately view the customer’s Latitude/Longitude in their proprietary mapping and response coordination software to choose the proper agency to coordinate the rescue,” according to the response manual when you send an SOS.

According to Qualcomm, it will eventually allow “premium messaging,” which will probably be more expensive and need OEMs, cell carriers, or other over-the-top service providers to adopt. Apple does not yet offer this; their SOS feature only allows you to send SMS via satellite.

While Qualcomm has stated that the emergency service will be free or extremely affordable, it hasn’t yet specified how much it will cost you to be able to text your pals from isolated locations, such as a hiking route, ski lift, or even a boat in the middle of the ocean.

However, Qualcomm claims that you will be able to utilise that service with your regular phone number whenever it becomes accessible. (Emergency use probably won’t be like that, but it doesn’t really matter there.) Grilli claimed that this function required “a lot of work,” and I agree with him because I can’t use my specialised satellite messenger from Garmin, which uses the Iridium network and costs at least $11.95 per month for service. Garmin even mentions that the phone number people receive SMS from could occasionally change, so in practise, if I want to initiate discussions, I have to do that.

To check for new messages that have arrived since I last saw a cell tower, I could potentially just push a button on a phone equipped with Snapdragon Satellite if I were in the woods. There’s a chance that some plans will charge for each message sent and received, so you probably wouldn’t want to spend money to receive spam texts or to hear from people whose messages could wait until you’re back online. However, Grilli did make the suggestion that you’ll be able to create a list of people who are permitted to text you when you’re off the grid, which could be a useful feature.

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, though there aren’t many specifics available about what it’ll be like to actually send and receive satellite messages. Grilli claims that because of the way Iridium’s constellation orbits the Earth, your phone will be able to forecast where its satellites will be months in advance. It will use GPS and other metrics to determine which direction you should be looking when you try to connect to one.

Grilli claims that while it might be necessary in some circumstances, holding your phone in the air will not always be necessary to receive signal. He claims that it will take between three and ten seconds to send or receive messages after you have a lock on the satellite. That’s impressive coming from someone with satellite messenger experience. We’ll have to wait and see how Qualcomm’s technology performs in similar circumstances since I’ve had to wait several minutes for my Garmin InReach to send out messages, even if it only happens when there are trees in the way.

Qualcomm claims that the capability will only be used for texting at this time. Grilli stated that it would probably be necessary to use an extra antenna in order to convert a conventional smartphone into a full satellite phone. He added that this is because “we don’t want to duplicate voice services or ISP data.”

The firm made a big show out of the fact that it’s working with Iridium especially during its introduction, claiming that its selection of network enables messaging to work “virtually anywhere in the world,” provided that this kind of feature is permitted in the region. That could be significant because T-“Coverage Mobile’s Above and Beyond” messaging in partnership with SpaceX will cover “everywhere in the continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters,” while Apple’s version, which uses Globalstar’s satellites, is currently only available in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK. Qualcomm is promising a lot more.

That is made feasible in part by the fact that Iridium’s low Earth orbit satellites can communicate with one another as well as with base stations on the ground. Therefore, even if the precise satellite your phone is interacting with doesn’t have a direct connection to a terrestrial data centre, messages can travel into space and then return to Earth. Similar technology is being tested by SpaceX for their Starlink constellation, although not all satellite providers have it.

Google is one firm that probably won’t be releasing a phone with the capability, despite the fact that it seems likely that many handset manufacturers would be happy to be able to purchase satellite connectivity features from Qualcomm. Grilli said that he didn’t believe there was “an inclination in going that path” when I questioned whether Snapdragon Satellite would be accessible on phones with a Qualcomm modem but a different manufacturer’s chipset. In order to properly align your device with the satellite, he added, “tight integration between the SoC and the modem is required.”

This appears to be terrible news for Pixel customers who were anticipating that their next phone would include this functionality since Google utilises its own proprietary Tensor chips for its smartphones. (However, there’s always a chance that the business is developing its own version to stay up with the competition.)

The action taken by Samsung will be interesting to see. Although it employs Qualcomm chips in its flagship devices, in some places it frequently uses its own Exynos chips in the Galaxy S series. It might be unpleasant to announce that a potentially life-saving function won’t be available in some countries, but Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite’s limited availability demonstrates that the fine line can be crossed.

They might not even need to incorporate this kind of capability if Google and Samsung are willing to wait. In a joint effort with satellite service providers, cell carriers have also pledged to offer messages to any 5G phone, including those without specialist radios. Other satellite-to-phone businesses like AST and Lynk have stated that they are in talks with other carriers around the world. T-Mobile has stated that it will begin testing its technology and SpaceX’s before the end of the year.

It appears conceivable that in the future, some phones may have access to both dedicated hardware, such that made by Apple and Qualcomm, and standard cellular bands, owing to specialised satellites and carrier agreements. It’s a good thing that these services are mostly marketed as emergency services because having a backup is typically worthwhile.

But for now, I’m relieved to hear that consumers will soon have more options when choosing a phone with integrated satellite communication. People should have the opportunity to purchase something comparable even if they would prefer to use an Android phone, despite Apple’s boasting about how its version of the function has already been saving lives.

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