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Qualcomm and Iridium will connect more smartphones to satellites this year

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LAS VEGAS — In a vast expanse of desert 30 minutes from the glitz of the Strip, Qualcomm vice president Francesco Grilli pecks a message off a partially translucent brick of a smartphone, then raises it skyward. Moments later, the text message he just sent arrives on his other, more conventional phone.

The scene was, honestly, a bit boring. But that’s because the interesting part – the satellite that received the text and routed it to a normal phone – was out of sight, about 485 miles above.

Tucked inside that brick were the same satellite connectivity bits that will appear in a wave of new smartphones starting in the second half of 2023. (Don’t worry: they won’t be bulkier than usual.) And unlike Apple iPhoneswhich only offer satellite service in emergencies, devices that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite technology will be able to send standard text messages via satellite to anyone – not just emergency responders, said Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon in an interview with The Washington Post.

“For you to be able to say, ‘No matter where I am, I can message and I’m connected,’ I think that’s powerful,” he said.

This push into satellite communications – fueled by a partnership with Iridium Communications, which operates a constellation of 66 satellites – is not a new concept.

Apples Emergency SOS via satellite function is live in six countries. A partnership between Elon Musk’s T-Mobile and SpaceX should bear fruit this year, and AT&T is explore phone-to-satellite connectivity with an outfit called AST SpaceMobile.

The catch with some of these satellite features is that they have a built-in audience – you have to own an iPhone or pay T-Mobile for your wireless service. Qualcomm’s and Iridium’s vision is a little different: any phone maker that buys the former’s high-end chipsets for its devices can pay a little extra to connect to the latter’s satellites.

And because Qualcomm’s chipsets are commonly used in smartphones made by Samsung, Motorola and other brands sold around the world, many more people will be able to send messages from cellular dead zones starting this year.

But that doesn’t mean anyone with a Qualcomm-powered phone will be able to try out this feature. For starters, it will only be available on phones that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, a high-powered package aimed at expensive smartphone models. Over time, Qualcomm aims to integrate satellite connectivity into more moderately priced chipsets and phones, but Amon wouldn’t say when.

Meanwhile, some of the first smartphones to use the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset have for sale abroad, long before the satellite features went live. Although the chipsets of these early devices contain many of the radio components needed to communicate with Iridium’s satellites, they do not contain all of them, which means they cannot be updated to use satellite functionality on the road.

In other words, if you are planning to buy a non-Apple smartphone and want to be able to get in touch with it friends and loved ones when you’re away from a cell tower, you might want to wait a while.

That wait, however, might be worth it – and that’s mostly thanks to Iridium. The McLean, Va.-based company has been putting satellites into orbit since the late 1990s, and the way these satellites are oriented around Earth means you’ll be able to send a message from research bases in Antarctica, in the middle of the Indian Ocean and beyond.

“There’s never a place on Earth that isn’t covered,” Iridium CEO Matthew Desch said in an interview. As long as you have a clear view of the sky, the only situation where you won’t be able to send a satellite message is if you try somewhere where it’s prohibited by the government, such as Iran and North Korea.

By contrast, Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite only works in the US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Ireland – plus a strip of coastal water around them. , if there has. Even if you have an iPhone 14 capable of communicating with a satellite, you cannot do so unless you are physically in one of these countries.

How you can use satellite connections

The ability to stay in touch anywhere in the world with a standard (so expensive) smartphone sure sounds appealing, but how do you actually use it?

It really depends on what you’re trying to do. If you want to contact help when you’re away from cellular networks, there are two options: you can start the SOS process from your phone’s lock screen or by trying to call emergency services. (There may be more places on your phone where you fire an SOS, but that’s Qualcomm’s decision left to device makers.)

After that, the messages you send will be routed to a response center in Texas owned by Garmin – yes, GPS and fitness monitors – where operators will collect information and coordinate with emergency responders. The costs involved, however, aren’t set in stone: Qualcomm’s Grilli said emergency messages “won’t be very expensive,” if they cost anything.

The story is slightly different for person-to-person messages. When trying to send an SMS via satellite, the process is simple: type your message and follow an on-screen guide to make sure your phone is pointing to a satellite. Iridium CEO Desch says each of the satellites completes a full orbit in about 100 minutes and it shouldn’t take more than eight to 12 minutes before one of them comes into range.

But these messages will almost certainly cost you, although it’s not yet clear how much. This is another decision that Qualcomm will offer to device manufacturers, as well as any messaging services (such as WhatsApp or Telegram) that want to adopt satellite communication.

Also unclear is how customers will be able to choose between different satellite services if their phone supports more than one.

While key questions about cost and the satellite chat experience persist, Qualcomm and Iridium are eagerly awaiting the next step: ensuring that satellite communication isn’t limited to our phones.

“We’ve talked about phones, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be your laptop,” Amon said, before turning his attention to another crucial product class. “Think of being able to notify that an airbag has been deployed, or being able to call emergency services, or being able to remotely unlock your car.”

For now, it’s unclear whether Qualcomm and Iridium are actively courting the Dells and General Motors of the world. But in terms of closing the gap between satellites and the other products we rely on every day, the wait may be shorter than expected.

“I think it’s not unrealistic to think that by next year we might have the opportunity to have other types of [supported] devices,” Amon said. “We are working on it.”

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