November 17 update below. This post was first published on November 15, 2023.
When Apple launched the iPhone 14 series, it brought with it a key new feature: emergency SOS via satellite. It came with two years’ free access, and Apple has just made a surprise announcement: iPhone 14 users can have an extra year of access for free.
The service, which allows users to contact emergency services when there was no cellular connection, went live a year ago today. Which means that anyone with an iPhone 14 then would have one year of free trial access left by now.
That’s just been extended by a year, so, providing you have an iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro or iPhone 14 Pro Max activated before today, you now have two years’ access again.
It’s also available for all iPhone 15 series models, with two years’ free trial available for those phones from the moment they are activated, too.
It’s not universally available, but it’s now in 16 countries and regions, Apple says, including the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
It means that if you go off-grid and, heaven forbid, get into difficulties, you can try and send an SOS message via satellite.
It’s 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. Providing you are outdoors with a clear view of the sky, you can use its software and GPS information to guide you where you should be pointing. Once you’ve made contact, the iPhone starts a conversation by text message and shares your location with emergency responders as well as letting your emergency contacts know where you are.
In the U.S., Apple additionally introduced Roadside Assistance via satellite to “connect users to AAA if they have car trouble while outside of cellular and Wi-Fi coverage.”
Outside emergency situations, the Find My app can be used to share your location with friends and family when you’re out of cellular connection range.
Apple says this service has already helped save lives in its first year of operation, including, “a man who was rescued after his car plummeted over a 400-foot cliff in Los Angeles.”
Today’s announcement means that anyone with an iPhone 14 or iPhone 15 can have around two years’ access to the service for free.
November 16 update. The reaction to the news above has been widespread. A year’s extension to the free provision of access to emergency SOS via satellite has been welcomed by many, and pored over by others.
One analyst, Ian Fogg, posted on X, formerly Twitter, saying, “Unsurprised to see free satellite emergency messaging extended for another year because it is a hard service to charge for – who would deny someone in desperate need of help because they had not paid?” I see the logic of this, but I suspect there are ways around this without being heartless. That said, the regular headlines of iPhones saving lives are worth a lot to Apple.
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman asks if it’s just that Apple has not yet sorted out its charging: “I wonder if the extension of free satellite SOS on the iPhone 14 is as simple as Apple not finalizing a monetization strategy. Building that backend to charge people + implementing that into iOS and possibly integrating it into Apple One bundles is a surprisingly long process.” I find this unconvincing. After all, there’s still another year to run before any cost would have been passed on. Even if progress has been slow, I wonder if Apple would conclude it was going to take another year or more to sort out.
More likely, I’d say, is the thought that Apple has bigger plans for satellite connectivity and is working on that. When Apple introduced Touch ID, it knew it was a precursor to Apple Pay. The company has already added to the satellite capability in the U.S. by providing connection AAA for breakdowns. Maybe it has more up its sleeve.
More details may leak, so please check back.
November 17 update. Interesting responses continue to accrue, and let’s not forget that rival phones will soon have emergency SOS access via satellite, which may also be a reason that Apple was determined to show it has the most cost-effective offering—you can’t beat free, after all. As more phones include satellite connectivity, Apple’s free model, now guaranteed to last until November 2025 at least, will put the squeeze on rivals. They will either have to bear the cost of the service by matching the zero pricing, or leave themselves open to criticism: why would you pay for this feature on a rival phone when it’s free from Apple?
Just a few weeks ago, Samsung confirmed that the next Galaxy flagship handsets, 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 inclusion of satellite connectivity and its arrival on Samsung’s multi-million selling phones will surely turn it from an exotic novelty into something much more commonplace. Huawei already has the capability 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 makers were not interested in the “proprietary solution” the two companies had been working on. Instead, the interest seems to be firmly focused on the kind of system Apple has developed, and, presumably, Samsung will deploy.
In the meantime, Apple’s motives have come under scrutiny. As mentioned above, Gurman thinks it could be that Apple figures it won’t be ready to charge by this time next year because deals take time to set up, hence the extension. But 9to5Mac’s Benjamin Mayo says it could be indecision: “Essential means Apple can defer making a decision about how it will charge for satellite features until September 2025.” True, though Apple does like to have these things sorted long in advance, so I think it will make its decision before then.
Software developer Richard Hyland had an interesting take, saying that nobody would ever pay for it, “because it’s an emergency feature you don’t need… until you need it.” The developer’s recommendation here is that it should be bundled with Apple One, the all-in-one service package.”
Personally, I still think Apple will keep it free for as long as possible. There are big costs associated with this, doubtless, but there is big PR value in each life-saving story that appears.
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