Stranded on a remote island? Your iPhone could ping a satellite for you

If cleared, India will become the 17th geography worldwide to be eligible for Apple’s ‘Emergency SOS via satellite’ feature that was unveiled in 2022. (Reuters)
If cleared, India will become the 17th geography worldwide to be eligible for Apple’s ‘Emergency SOS via satellite’ feature that was unveiled in 2022. (Reuters)


  • Devices starting with the iPhone 14 series will be able to connect with emergency responders and contacts through a satellite-based network. Android phones do not have this feature yet.

New Delhi: Lost in the jungle? Stranded on an island? iPhone users with top models may soon be able to reach emergency services and alert their friends and family, thanks to the satellite connectivity feature that Apple plans to roll out in India soon.

Apple has held discussions with Indian officials and sought permission for the feature that it brought to iPhone 14 and iPhone 15 some less than two years ago, two people aware of the matter said. Apple will be the first smartphone maker in India offering satellite connectivity for emergency purposes, if it manages to secure a licence for Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite (GMPCS) in the country.

Unlike in satellite phones, the iPhone feature does not enable two-way phone calls. The purpose is to send text messages, share location and alert battery charge status in a limited communication format to seek help. If cleared, India will become the 17th geography worldwide to be eligible for Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite feature.

“Apple’s application will make its eligible smartphones the first of their kind in the country, which is a differentiating factor since no Android smartphone so far offers it. The licence is pending approval, and will bring Globalstar’s constellation into operation in India," one of the executives said.

A third senior executive with direct knowledge of the matter said there have been discussions on expanding satellite services to India, but he did not confirm if the company has already applied for a licence.

Solely for emergency comms

US-based Globalstar offers satellite bandwidth to Apple’s iPhones, which the latter uses solely for emergency communications—in areas that do not have cellular network connectivity. Users can send only a set format of information to public emergency response services and their own emergency contacts, which includes a pre-filled emergency information form, emergency contact information, contact details, phone battery status and last known geographical coordinates.

Industry stakeholders say the feature may not become a big revenue generator or proliferate across all users for Apple. A poll of three market research firms by Mint projected around six million units of eligible iPhones in India that can support the feature—or 0.8% of India’s active smartphone user base. This makes for less than one-fifth of Apple’s expected active iPhone users base of over 30 million in India.

Faisal Kawoosa, founder of market research firm Techarc, said that the move is a forward-looking one from Apple. “Globally, the iPhone-maker was the first company to include commercial satellite connectivity, albeit in a limited format. While we don’t expect that to change any time soon, Apple wouldn’t want a cross-industry rival from the Android stable to bring satellite connectivity to India first. The feature could also be useful in India’s terrain, where terrestrial cellular networks still remain weak in various parts of the country," he said.

Apple says satellite connectivity support will remain free “for two years'' for the iPhone 14 and iPhone 15 series. However, there is no clarity as yet on how Apple will charge for the service, beyond the free service period.

Apple did not respond to emails seeking comment on the matter.

Satcom not forgotten

“While AI seems to have taken the interim limelight, such a move would prove that Apple hasn’t forgotten satellite communications and does plan to keep it around in the long run. Its features can expand the user base for the service, and while the user base is likely to remain niche, this could ramp up Apple’s market positioning even further, in the long run," Kawoosa added.

There are challenges, too. The second executive cited above stated that the reason for the sudden impetus for Apple to bring in satellite connectivity remained unclear. “Apple, although important, represents hardly 4% of the active Indian smartphone base. Unless they have future plans to generate revenue from the service or expand its scope, it’s not clear if there was any particular factor generating demand for satellite connectivity among iPhone users in India," the executive said.

Even though Apple’s overall market share in India remains small, its business has expanded. In FY24, Apple’s iPhone exports from India crossed $10 billion. This calendar year, Apple is expected to cross 10 million units of iPhone shipments to retailers for the first time—thus racking up over $10 billion in domestic iPhone sales.

This, experts believe, can help amplify its satellite connectivity service going forward. Apple is also expected to launch its new iPhones globally later this year—typically in September. The new phones are also expected to offer satellite connectivity, which could increase the number of total active devices that can access this feature in India.

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