Months after it was announced at an event in September, Emergency SOS via Satellite, Apple’s service for iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro that uses satellite to route emergency calls, launched today. Compatible iPhones in the US and Canada updated to the latest iOS 16 can send an SOS even when off the network, without the need for Dish, thanks to an updated wireless chipset and Apple’s partnership with the carrier of Globalstar satellite services.
Satellite Emergency SOS will expand to France, Germany, Ireland and the UK next month, Apple announced this morning.
As my colleague Devin Coldewey pointed out in his coverage of Emergency SOS earlier this year, the service differs from the satellite-based data and text connectivity offered by Lynk, T-Mobile, and Starlink. While those rely on cell phone towers strong enough to reach and receive a satellite signal, Emergency SOS, through Globalstar, uses bands that typically require a special antenna.
It is an expensive undertaking. Apple recently committed $450 million through its Advanced Manufacturing Fund to expand the infrastructure that powers Emergency SOS, including the satellite network and ground stations. A portion of the funding went toward the installation of custom antennas designed to receive signals transmitted by Globalstar’s constellation of satellites.
One assumes that Apple intends to eventually recoup its investment. But for now, Emergency SOS is free. Current iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro owners won’t have to pay for at least two years from today, while new iPhone owners will receive free service for two years from the activation of their phones.
On a rainy Friday morning in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I, along with other reporters, had the opportunity to test drive Emergency SOS before launch. Apple spokespeople arranged for us to make 911 calls using the service, even though the calls weren’t Really routed to first responders.
So how is the experience? Pretty smooth, I must say. Emergency SOS can be activated by dialing an emergency number or automatically through Siri or the accident detection feature on newer iPhone and Apple Watch models and fall detection on Apple Watch. (In non-emergency situations, Emergency SOS can also be used to send your location to friends and family through the Find My app.) After dialing 911, once Emergency SOS detects that Wi-Fi and mobile service is unavailable, a prompt appears to initiate Emergency SOS via satellite.
While active, Emergency SOS prompts you to select one of several types of emergencies, for example, illness, crime, physical injury, and provide details about the emergency, such as whether you are having trouble breathing or have medication on hand. If you have set up emergency contacts, you can choose to notify them along with emergency services.
At this stage, Emergency SOS will prompt you to point your phone at the nearest satellite, displaying an animation indicating when the signal has been locked on. If you are unable to do so, for example if you are unconscious or incapacitated, Emergency SOS will attempt a satellite connection, even if there is no clear view, where no cellular or Wi-Fi is available.
In my tests, Emergency SOS reliably found a signal through the thick tree branches in Prospect Park. Lock time ranged from a few seconds to 10, though Apple says the success of the lock will depend on a number of factors, including weather and obstructions in the path of the antenna. Like most satellite services, Emergency SOS does not work indoors.
Apple also notes on a support page that mountains, steep hills, and canyons can block the emergency SOS over the satellite connection. But Prospect Park lacks these, so I couldn’t really put Emergency SOS to the test. Poor me.
After connection, Emergency SOS sends a text message with the answers to the above questions along with your phone’s battery life, location (including elevation), and, if you entered it beforehand, basic medical information to a public safety answering point (the local call center where emergency calls typically end) or an Apple-operated emergency relay center. The party receiving the satellite text messages depends on whether the nearest public safety answering point supports texting to 911. If not, staff at the emergency relay center will communicate the information to an emergency responder. by voice, acting as intermediaries.
Follow-up emergency SOS text messages occur in iMessage, where responders can ask about your specific location and current status. A notification shows the sending progress of each message; sending times can vary from a few seconds to around a minute for weaker signals.
It is worth noting that Emergency SOS via satellite, as it currently exists, has a number of limitations. It is only available in English, Spanish, and French in Canada and the US, as mentioned, excluding Guam and American Samoa. May not work in places above 62° latitude, such as northern Canada and Alaska. And international travelers who bought iPhones in mainland China, Hong Kong, or Macau can’t use it.
But it’s safe to assume we’ll see the evolution of Emergency SOS via satellite in the coming months or years, particularly if it ever gets a premium component, or Apple Watch support.