There has already been speculation that the iPhone 14 will support satellite connectivity, and Elon Musk made headlines in August 2022 when he announced that Starlink satellites will beam internet to mobile phones connected to T-network. Mobile’s Satellite connectivity for phones appears to be making a big impact next year, beginning with handsets running Android 14.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, a Google SVP in charge of Android, Chrome, Chrome OS, Play, and Photos, tweeted that “user experiences for phones that can connect to satellites” will be included in the next version of Android. The Google executive did not go into specifics about how satellite connectivity for Android 14 phones will work, but it is an intriguing prospect.
In terms of the T-Mobile Starlink agreement, satellite connectivity will primarily be used in emergency situations, allowing users to send a message or make an SOS call when cellular connectivity is unavailable. This will be especially beneficial for people affected by natural disasters, which frequently disrupt the telecommunications infrastructure in the affected areas. During Musk’s SpaceX and T-Mobile conference, it was revealed that phone-satellite connectivity bandwidth will be limited to 2 to 4 megabits per cellular zone — and that no special smartphone hardware will be required. The Washington Post quoted T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert as saying, “We’re using a piece of spectrum your phone already knows.”
A perk long in the making
Google is not unfamiliar with the concept of satellites communicating with phones. After experimenting with internet-beaming balloons (dubbed Project Loon), Google invested in SpaceX in 2015 to support its satellite endeavors, as reported by The New York Times several years ago. In addition, a Google patent application submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office discussed how “satellites can provide communication services to areas where wired cables cannot reach.”
Another patent, titled “Satellite Communications Adapter For Cellular Handset,” describes satellite-based narrow-band communication that would connect a phone to space satellites. A narrow-band Internet-of-Things (NB-IoT) radio access technology (RAT) is at the heart of it all; it would activate when the system (that is, the phone) detects that it is outside of the regular cellular coverage zone. In 2021, Google was also seen hiring for positions related to satellite internet providers (via 9to5Google).
According to Lockheimer’s tweet, Google is currently working with partners to enable the satellite communication feature for phones beginning next year. However, it is unclear whether the term partners refers to satellite connectivity service providers such as SpaceX and OneWeb, or mobile carriers such as T-Mobile. Regardless of Google’s business partners, the ability to connect with satellites as an emergency communication system on Android devices would be extremely useful.