Android smartphones will soon be able to save lives thanks to satellites, like iPhones

The partnership between Qualcomm and Iridium will transform most smartphones equipped with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 into terminals capable of sending satellite emergency messages. If the approach resembles that of Apple, integrated into the iPhone 14, the choice of satellite partner could give an advantage to Qualcomm.

“Wherever you are in the world, if you see even a small patch of sky, you will be able to communicate.” This is the promise of Francesco Grilli, vice president of Qualcomm in charge of satellite technologies. At CES 2023, he presented the upcoming arrival of this technology in Android smartphones. Thus responding to Apple, which launched the era of emergency satellite communication with its iPhone 14 in September 2022.

If Qualcomm comes after Apple in the race, it is essentially for a reason of processor launch schedule, the first generally launching its SoCs at the end of the year. However, Qualcomm’s “delay” is only in the announcement and in the software availability of the services: the majority of high-end Android terminals embedding Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chips this year are already compatible. But a major difference distinguishes the technology of Qualcomm from that of Apple: the choice of the satellite partner.

Iridium’s advantage over Globalsat

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Unlike Apple, which signed with Globalsat, Qualcomm turned to another satellite specialist, the American Iridium. Who is nothing less than the industry heavyweight in the field. All professions that involve really thinking outside the box – mountaineers, humanitarians, explorers, journalists in conflict zones, government officials, etc. – are likely to be equipped with a satellite telephone. It is generally a terminal based on the Iridium network for a fundamental strength of this network: its universal character.

Read also : iPhone: Apple launches its life-saving satellite service today (Dec. 2022)

Because from the North Pole to Point Nemo in the Pacific Ocean, as soon as a patch of sky is available, a terminal compatible with the Iridium network can effectively send and receive messages – bidirectionality which will also be on the agenda with smartphones. This is not the case with the Globalsat network. The reason lies in the technical design of the two networks. While Globalsat depends on ground relays (several dozen on the planet), Iridium is a constellation including inter-satellite communications.

In addition, the greater number of satellites at lower altitude at Iridium (66 + 9 backup against only 24 for Globalstar) facilitates communication even in the deepest gorges or canyons, where Globalsat will have much more difficulty. Please note that this does not disqualify Apple’s offer (read “the Apple asset” below), whose service is already perfectly suited to occasional use in the depths of the Atacama desert – finally if the service were launched in Chile. But the most savage explorers will inevitably choose Iridium rather than Globalsat.

Everywhere, for all 100% Qualcomm smartphones (but not for all customers)

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The good news for those who are going to buy a high-end Android terminal this year is that the terminals should be 100% compatible with the satellite connection. Why use the conditional? Because it has two limits: a technical one and a legal one. ” The terminal must use our latest generation RF antennas to be able to take advantage of the service “, explains Francesco Grilli. In the event that a brand uses another provider, this will not be possible: the X70 Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 modem needs these antennas. While it’s rare for brands to not buy the full tech platform, it can happen. It will be difficult to easily verify the information because few technical data sheets detail the type of RF antenna used!

Then, the legislation of the country of purchase of the terminal must allow this type of use. “ Countries like India or China do not allow satellite services. Local software will therefore not allow you to take advantage of it. But all compatible devices purchased in Europe or North America will be able to. And they will work anywhere on the planet “, added Mr. Grilli. On paper, Qualcomm seems to have some technological advantage. But as so often, Apple has a few cards up its sleeve.

Apple’s strengths: investments and integration

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Apple’s communication clearly explains its investment in the Globalstar network: Apple’s investments have already improved Globalstar’s ground stations through the deployment of new high-powered antennas, produced for Apple at the Cobham Satcom factory in Concord, California. » © Apple

Globalstar does not offer the total and global coverage of Iridium, as we have seen. Second, the network depends on a limited number of ground stations. Because the satellite world – Iridium, inmarsat, Globalstar and Thuraya – is small and generates little money. All launches are controlled, without the “debauchery” side that an actor like Space X can represent. All of this, Apple knows very well. This is no doubt why the American giant has decided to put its hands in its pocket to strengthen the network.

Apple has therefore insisted a lot in its communication around the function after the launch of the iPhone 14s to talk about his investment in the system. The American will thus spend 450 million dollars over five years to strengthen the network of ground stations. Initially in the United States (first market where the service was deployed) in the states of Hawaii, Alaska, Florida, Nevada, or Puerto Rico. If few people really need the universality of Iridium, many American states remain quite empty, wild and sometimes poorly equipped with network infrastructures. Apple’s solution therefore seems already suitable for a wider audience.

Finally, it is also on the integration side that Apple will stand out, since the service is (as usual with Apple!), thought out from A to Z. Pre-recorded messages in the terminal (which encapsulate GPS location automatically) to software integration, the ease of signing up for a protection plan when the time comes – right now it’s free for two years, and time will tell what Apple has decided, etc. Everything is already in place at the American.

To be able to compete with Apple, Qualcomm’s Android partners will have to create from scratch not only a software offer, but also a technical and commercial offer adapted to each of the countries where the devices are sold. The finishes are generally the Achilles heel of Android terminals. Let’s hope that Qualcomm has already prepared the ground for its partners, otherwise it will probably be necessary to wait a little while for its solution, which is spatially superior, to really tease that of Apple.

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Android smartphones will soon be able to save lives thanks to satellites, like iPhones

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