Testing Emergency SOS and Find My via Satellite

Originally published at: Testing Emergency SOS and Find My via Satellite - TidBITS

In which Adam Engst drives to a nearby deep valley where there’s no cellular connectivity to test Find My via satellite and run through the Emergency SOS via satellite demo in a real-world situation. It seemingly worked but revealed a gap in Apple’s approach.



Here are some more data points on what is real and what is fake in the demo:

The demo is definitely tracking potential satellites. When I went to a spot with an unobstructed view, finding a satellite went rather quickly and there was no problem holding it in view throughout the full demo. I did turn away from the desired range a few times and got the warning about the connection being dropped, but it was immediately re-established when I turned back into the target zone.

I then tried it from the balcony of my apartment building where I could view about 90º of sky. Initially, a satellite appeared to be on the left edge of the target zone, but the building blocked a solid connection. A few seconds later, a new satellite appeared to the right and I was able to establish a connection. I again deliberately moved out of range during a send; a message appeared and send progress stopped. When I came back into range, sending resumed.

So, it appears that the demo does indeed do satellite tracking. Whether messages are being transmitted through the satellite connection is an open question. It’s possible that both ends of the conversation are being generated on the iPhone, but the status of the connection is tracked to simulate the transmission.

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I wonder when we’ll get the first report of someone using Emergency SOS via satellite in a true emergency?

Agree they need to add what InReach has for this to be useful (except of course for the real emergency) is to be able to message when out of cellular range. Could be $0.25 per call for example, but not $12/month.

Maybe that’s what the free for two years is hinting at. They can’t charge for real emergencies.

Also confusing that pre-14 phones show “SOS” at times (T-Mobile). And also “Emergency SOS” in settings. This has to be dead (no pun intended) simple. You don’t want to be thinking about what this is all about in a real emergency.

This will get sorted out. T-Mobile announced something before Apple but haven’t heard much.

In the mean time I’ll keep my EPIRB and some of my friends will keep their InReachs for way off the grid forays. Although I don’t carry my EPRIB on a hike and I do carry my phone. And we in Los Angeles have incomplete cell service in the woods and even in spread out suburbs.

Why not? The SOS is basically telling you that your cellular provider has no service, but your phone has enough of a signal with another carrier to dial 911. And this Apple emergency satellite service starts by dialing 911; you get the prompts when your iphone 14 model is unable to connect to a cellular provider.

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Complaining that Apple’s emergency SOS isn’t a non-emergency service is rather off-point.

I’d love a sat text service, but I rather doubt Globalstar can handle it at this point. Maybe Apple and Elon should have a chat…he’s got some sats up there. But iPhones can’t reach them…yet. The first phone to do that will be quite popular, I’d imagine.

@ddmiller Thanks. I didn’t understand that. As I said confusing. But good to know that is available. Do all providers do this?

I’ve long known that messages can be sent with almost no signal as sporadic connectivity is enough for a message. Also confused by Messages and whatever Android does. We shouldn’t be on two different systems. But I guess much of the world is on WhatsApp. Since many use WhatsApp, how does it deal with emergencies?

The SOS designation in the status bar is new with iOS 16 I believe, and I’m sure it’s because of the new satellite emergency feature.

In the US all mobile phones are required (and have been as long as I can remember) to connect to any carrier for a 911 call, even if the phone has no service. (Pull the SIM out of your phone and you’ll still be able to dial 911; my old iPhone X without a SIM now shows SOS when it used to say “No SIM”.). And I guess the carriers are required to complete any call dialed to 911 even if the phone has no service.

That said, from FAQ About Calling 911 | 911.gov though:

All wireless phones, even those that are not subscribed to or supported by a specific carrier, can call 911. However, calls to 911 on phones without active service do not deliver the caller’s location to the 911 call center, and the call center cannot call these phones back to find out the caller’s location or the nature of the emergency. If disconnected, the 911 center has no way to call back the caller.

These uninitialized phones are often used to place malicious or fake calls to 911 call centers. These calls are a burden on the 911 system because 911 call centers are required to find out whether or not an emergency truly exists.

Oftentimes, parents provide these uninitialized wireless phones as toys to young children, unaware that if the child dials 911, a live call will be connected with the local 911 call center. It is recommended that parents remove the phone’s battery before giving these phones to children.

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But it’s not just Emergency SOS, it’s also Find My via satellite, which is available to all iPhone 14 owners at any time they don’t have cellular or Wi-Fi access.

I think that’s his point @ace . It is deliberately called Emergency SOS. It is not called “Find My” yet, perhaps deliberately.

Your proposed road map is nevertheless good journalism for creative analysis of possibilities beyond disgorging press releases. That’s classic TidBITS.

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To my mind, Apple has very carefully avoided giving the feature a formal name, which is unusual and leads me to think there will be a better name in a year or two once satellite communications has worked its way further into more apps.

(The casing is always “Emergency SOS via satellite,” and not “Emergency SOS via Satellite.” It’s an addition to the Emergency SOS feature, but apparently not one that merits a fully capitalized proper name, like Crash Detection or Fall Detection. It’s a bit like “27-inch iMac with Retina display,” where “display” is always lowercase.)

And in the press release about it, although the focus is on Emergency SOS because it’s much more useful and understandable, the rest of the text and the footnotes, where Apple has to be specific, put Find My via satellite (again, no formal name, just an extension of Find My) at the same contextual level.

  • Emergency SOS via satellite and Find My via satellite are available today in the US and Canada, and will be available in France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK in December. The service will be included for free for two years starting at the time of activation of a new iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro, and iPhone 14 Pro Max.4

  • Emergency SOS via satellite and Find My via satellite require iOS 16.1.