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iPhone 14 could add satellite connectivity — but there’s one last hurdle to clear

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Long rumored to be coming to Apple's iPhone, satellite connectivity could make its debut alongside the iPhone 14 next month. And the only thing standing in the way of this feature is Apple hammering out an agreement with a satellite partner between now and the Apple September 7 event.

That's the word from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who outlined the state of play for iPhone satellite connectivity in both a Twitter post (opens in new tab) and an article appearing on Medium (opens in new tab). And given Kuo's reputation — he's known for tapping into some pretty reliable sources in Apple's supply chain — it's worth paying attention to this rumor, even if it is something we've been hearing for the better part of a year.

According to Kuo, Apple's completed hardware tests for allowing the iPhone 14 to connect to satellite-based networks for emergency communications. Under this feature, you'd be able to send text and voice messages to emergency services when you're out of cellular range by way of satellite communications. In some reports, you might even be able to alert your own contacts using satellite connectivity.

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As of this moment, Kuo reports that Apple's ability to "offer satellite communication service depends on whether Apple and operators can settle the business model." In other words, Apple has to agree to terms with a satellite company to support the feature, but there's no technical reason why the iPhone 14 couldn't offer it.

The iPhone and satellite connectivity — a brief history

If all this sounds familiar, it's because reports of satellite connectivity coming to the iPhone date back to just before the iPhone 13's release a year ago. Reports suggested back then that Apple was trying to add this emergency connectivity capability to its new phones, but the iPhone 13 debut came and went with no further details or confirmation.

But Kuo says that iPhone 13 models had also gone through hardware development for the satellite communication feature. That feature didn't go live because Apple hadn't come to an agreement with a satellite provider. It's unclear if that means that any subsequent agreement reached for the iPhone 14 launch would also include iPhone 13 models.

Adding the ability to send emergency texts when regular cellular connectivity isn't available would be a big addition to the iPhone, so you can understand why Apple is apparently pursuing the technology. Like other tech companies, Apple touts its devices for active lifestyles, which means sometimes the people carrying around iPhone find themselves in locations where cellular towers can't reach. Add in the prospect of severe weather triggered by climate change knocking out communications, and the ability to send emergency messages becomes even more vital.

More than just the iPhone

Apple may be pursuing satellite connectivity for more than just its iPhones. Over the weekend, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman reported that the feature could also be included with the rumored Apple Watch 8 Pro, a more rugged version of Apple's smartwatch aimed for extreme activities and outdoor enthusiasts. Support for satellite connectivity on the watch may hinge on the same issue Kuo cites — Apple lining up a partner. According to Kuo's report, the most likely candidate is Globalstar.

Reports of satellite connectivity finally coming to the iPhone 14 first appeared in April, though the rumors really picked up steam last week when wireless carrier T-Mobile and SpaceX announced plans to use satellites to provide coverage in areas where T-Mobile's network doesn't reach. At least one analyst speculates the announcement came last week to get the jump on Apple's iPhone 14 news, currently expected to happen on September 7. The T-Mobile/SpaceX service wouldn't launch until 2023.

Other phone makers could be about to make similar moves, added Kuo, pointing to a Huawei media event slated for September 6, in which the Chinese phone maker is expected to launch the Mate 50. That phone would reportedly support emergency texting through the BeiDou Navigation Satellite system.

Even if satellite connectivity doesn't go live with the iPhone 14 launch, Apple's going to have plenty of new features to talk about at next week's Apple event. The iPhone 14 Pro models are expected to see the bulk of the major changes, with rumored upgrades to their main camera plus the removal of the notch from the Pro display. All four models are tipped to get improved front cameras.

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.