Update November 17 below. This post was first published on November 15, 2023.
When Apple launched the iPhone 14 series, it brought with it an important new feature: emergency SOS via satellite. It came with two years of free access, and Apple just made a surprising announcement: iPhone 14 users can get an extra year of access for free.
The service, which allows users to contact emergency services when there was no mobile connection, went live a year ago today. Which means that everyone with an iPhone 14 would then have a year’s free trial access left now.
It’s just been extended by a year, so provided you have an iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro or iPhone 14 Pro Max activated before today, you now have two years of access again.
It’s also available for all iPhone 15 models, with a two-year free trial available for those phones from the moment they’re activated as well.
It’s not generally available, but it’s now available in 16 countries and regions, Apple says, including the US, UK, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
That means if you go off-grid and, heaven forbid, get into trouble, you can try sending an SOS message via satellite.
It is a very clever system. After all, satellites aren’t visible to the naked eye, so how do you point at them?
Apple thought of this, thankfully. Assuming you’re outdoors with a clear view of the sky, you can use the software and GPS information to guide you where to point. Once you’ve made contact, iPhone starts a conversation via text and shares your location with emergency responders and lets your emergency contacts know where you are.
In the U.S., Apple also introduced roadside assistance via satellite to “connect users to AAA if they have car problems when they’re outside cellular and Wi-Fi coverage.”
Outside of emergencies, the Find My app can be used to share your location with friends and family when you’re out of range of a mobile connection.
Apple says this service has already helped save lives in its first year of operation, including “a man who was rescued after his car plunged off a 400-foot cliff in Los Angeles.”
Today’s announcement means that anyone with an iPhone 14 or iPhone 15 can get about two years of access to the service for free.
Update November 16. Reaction to the news above has been widespread. A one-year extension of the free provision of emergency SOS access via satellite has been welcomed by many, and considered by others.
An analystIan Fogg, posted on X, formerly Twitter, saying: “Surprised to see free satellite emergency notifications extended for another year as it’s a difficult service to charge for – who would deny someone in desperate need of help because they didn’t have paid?” I see the logic in this, but I suspect there are ways around this without being heartless. That said, the usual headlines about iPhones saving lives are worth a lot to Apple.
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman asks if it’s just that Apple hasn’t yet sorted out its charge: “I wonder if the extension of free satellite SOS on the iPhone 14 is as simple as Apple not finalizing a monetization strategy. Building this backend to load people + implement it in iOS and possibly integrate it into Apple One bundles is a surprisingly long process.” I find this unconvincing. After all, there is still a year to go before any cost would have been transferred. Although progress has been slow, I wonder if Apple would conclude that it would take another year or more to sort out.
More likely, I’d say, is the idea that Apple has bigger plans for satellite connectivity and is working on it. When Apple introduced Touch ID, they knew it was a precursor to Apple Pay. The company has already expanded satellite capacity in the US by providing connectivity AAA for outages. Maybe it has more up its sleeve.
More information may leak, so please check back.
Update November 17. Interesting answers continue to be collected, and let’s not forget that rival phones will soon have access to SOS in emergencies via satellite, which may also be a reason why Apple was determined to show that it has the most cost-effective offering – you can’t hit free, after all. As more phones include satellite connectivity, Apple’s free model, now guaranteed to last until at least November 2025, will put pressure on competitors. They either have to cover the cost of the service by matching the zero price, or leave themselves open to criticism: why would you pay for this feature on a competing phone when it’s free from Apple?
Just a few weeks ago, Samsung confirmed that the next Galaxy flagship phones, the Samsung Galaxy S24, Galaxy S24+ and Galaxy S24 Ultra, will come with satellite connectivity. Full details in Ewan Spence’s excellent analysis here on Forbes.
Apple has legitimized the introduction of satellite connections and its arrival on Samsung’s multi-million selling phones is sure to transform it from an exotic novelty to something much more common. Huawei already has the capacity on its P60 series launched in spring 2023.
That said, earlier in November 2023, Qualcomm ended its partnership with the satellite communications company Iridium to provide satellite-to-phone services. This tells us that phone manufacturers were not interested in the “proprietary solution” that the two companies had been working on. Instead, interest seems to be heavily focused on the type of system Apple has developed, and presumably Samsung will implement.
Meanwhile, Apple’s motives have come under scrutiny. As mentioned above, Gurman believes it could be that Apple anticipates it won’t be ready to charge by this time next year because deals take time to set up, hence the extension. But 9to5MacBenjamin Mayo says it could be indecisive: “Important means Apple could delay the decision on how they will charge for satellite features until September 2025.” True, although Apple likes to have these things sorted well in advance, so I think it will make its decision before then.
Software developer Richard Hyland had an interesting take, saying that no one would ever pay for it, “because it’s an emergency feature that you don’t need … until you need it.” The developer’s recommendation here is that it should ship with Apple One, the all-in-one service package.”
Personally, I think Apple will keep it free for as long as possible. There are huge costs associated with this, no doubt, but there is huge PR value in every life-saving story that emerges.
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