iPhone 13 rumours: Satellites will enable connectivity without cell reception

30 Aug 2021

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Reputable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has said that Apple may be working alongside operator Globalstar to deliver worldwide comms capability.

The iPhone 13 is said to feature low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity for communication, according to MacRumours.

The report comes from financial services analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has “contacts in Apple’s Asian supply chain” and has successfully predicted the company’s future moves a number of times.

According to Kuo, the iPhone 13 will feature satellite phone capability to allow users to call and send messages even when not in range of a cell tower. The upcoming smartphone is said to use a version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X60 modem customised to allow for satellite comms functions.

Kuo’s report also says that the satellite operator “most likely to cooperate with Apple in terms of technology and service coverage” is Globalstar.

Globalstar is already separately a partner of Qualcomm, having secured an agreement with the chipmaker to make the Snapdragon X65 modem compatible with the Globalstar N53 comms band, albeit for terrestrial purposes.

Kuo also said that Apple is “optimistic” about technological and market trends in satellite comms and has had a specific research and development team working in the area for “some time”.

Satellite phones are not a new technology, and have been available for decades. However, existing satphones usually come in the form of specialised devices sold by operators such as Iridium, Immarsat and Globalstar for use in contexts such as disaster response and ocean travel.

Companies such as Lynk and Ubiquitilink have previously claimed that relatively or completely unmodified smartphones have all the hardware necessary to connect directly to satellites for cellular service. Such a service has not, however, been commercially deployed anywhere, let alone at scale.

A titan like Apple releasing a phone with specialised hardware and, crucially, software for this capability would therefore be huge news.

SpaceX’s Starlink service has vastly increased the ubiquity of and interest in satellite comms services in recent years. The company now reportedly provides internet service to some 100,000 people, with many more on its waiting lists.

The iPhone 13 range is expected to be announced in mid-September, with a recent leak from Jon Prosser setting the specific date at 14 September. The phone will likely go on sale towards the end of next month.

Jack Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin