• Apple has sunk a cool $450 million into custom antennas for SOS satellite ground stations. 
  • Only Apple would go to such expensive, extensive efforts for a pretty niche feature. 
  • Features like fall detection and Emergency SOS are hard for other phone makers to copy.

The AMF Emergency Satellite exterior.

Apple's new satellite SOS service is expensive—not for you and me but for Apple—and it's probably totally worth it. 

Starting today, iPhone 14 Pro users lost in the wilderness—or just in a park without cellular coverage—can send emergency texts via satellite. To the user, this service is free. But Apple has already sunk upwards of $450 million into it. The tech behind it is neat, but it's even more interesting that only Apple would make such a huge investment for what is, frankly, quite a niche feature. 

“I think it’s going to be very useful—their crash detection on the Apple Watch has saved someone’s life already—plus it’s huge peace of mind for people going on hikes to just bring their phone without having to buy a beacon or satellite phone,” Nick Dorrell, outdoors writer and owner of hiking and camping site Hikematic, told Lifewire via email.

SOS

There are already services that let you communicate off-grid, from satellite phones to devices like Garmin’s inReach, a GPS navigator with two-way texting and SOS. But let’s be honest, even many backcountry hikers won’t bother with such tech. Whereas Apple’s version comes built into the iPhone, sitting there waiting until you need it. This is way more helpful—after all, an emergency is usually something you weren’t expecting. 

To use it, you must line up the phone to point at a satellite (done using an on-screen guide), and you can then beam out a message. An in-app wizard quizzes you to get the relevant details into a minimal message and shoots it off. This can take up to 15 minutes. You can also share your location using the Find My app.

Screenshots from Apple's Emergency SOS via Satellite option.

Once the message hits the satellite, it is forwarded to a ground station. And this is where much of Apple’s half-billion dollars went. The ground stations, run by Globalstar, now have Apple’s custom-designed antennae in them, which improve coverage and, Apple said in a press release, reliability. 

“Hiking is an increasingly popular activity, and many people will appreciate the added safety net of knowing that they can always call for help if they need it. Moreover, the publicity surrounding the new feature is turning out to be positive and generating even more interest in Apple products,” Ryan Rottman, CEO of OSDB Sports online sports database, told Lifewire via email.

Why Bother?

This is a great feature if you need it, but surely very few iPhone owners are also backcountry hikers or workers. But Apple has a history of including relatively niche features in its devices. The Apple Watch’s fall-detection feature is one. Plenty of old folks fall, and lots of mountain bikers take a tumble, but as a percentage of iPhone users, how many is it really?

These are the kinds of features that only Apple seems to make. They’re almost like passion projects in that their cost and effort outweigh their utility to Apple. But Apple is used to investing huge amounts in the companies that supply it with iPhones, Macs, and the chips that power them. Investing in infrastructure for features isn’t so far off. 

Also, remember that Apple has billions and billions of dollars in cash waiting to be spent and that the smartphone market is quite mature and saturated. Features like this differentiate the iPhone in a world where every feature Apple adds is soon copied by Android handset makers. 

People monitoring emergency satellite equipment.

"Apple gets a ton of marketing from features like this. It keeps them at the forefront of any kind of safety feature discussions, too," says Dorrell.

Look at it another way. Can you imagine Samsung or any other phone creating this SOS satellite feature? Chinese state-sponsored Huawei could probably manage it, but who would trust it not to track you everywhere? Plus, as phone features go, this one is harder to copy than the Notch or an app icon. 

This is exactly the reason people like Apple products. They’re incredibly well-built and look cool, sure, but they also come with surprising and unique features, like this SOS system, the Dynamic Island, or even the Mac’s Time Machine backup. And like Time Machine, you hope you never need Emergency SOS via satellite, but when you do, you’ll be very happy you have it.

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