One of the iPhone 14’s major new features was “Emergency SOS via satellite.”During normal usage, smartphones struggle to connect to something as far away as a satellite, but it’s possible to send out tiny bits of data under ideal conditions with the help of an aiming app. Apple turned this into a way to send a message to emergency services even when you’re off the grid, and the Android ecosystem immediately set about copying the feature. Qualcomm’s “Snapdragon Satellite”was announced in January 2023, and now, ten months later and with zero customers, the plan is dead.
Qualcomm’s satellite partner for the project, Iridium, announced the dissolution of the partnership in a press release, though Qualcomm says it still wants to work with Iridium for future projects. Iridium wrote:
Iridium previously announced that it entered into agreements with Qualcomm to enable satellite messaging and emergency services in smartphones powered by Snapdragon Mobile Platforms using Iridium’s satellite network. The companies successfully developed and demonstrated the technology; however, notwithstanding this technical success, smartphone manufacturers have not included the technology in their devices. Due to this, on November 3, 2023, Qualcomm notified Iridium that it has elected to terminate the agreements, effective December 3, 2023.
Essentially, the project is dying because Qualcomm couldn’t get a single Android manufacturer to add satellite messaging to a phone. Qualcomm’s satellite solution didn’t require much in the way of new hardware, so the rejection was apparently due to Qualcomm’s design of the feature and (presumably) any tack-on fees it was adding to the bill of materials. In a statement given to CNBC, Qualcomm says smartphone makers “indicated a preference towards standards-based solutions” for satellite-to-phone connectivity, a plan the company now wants to pivot to.
Since Snapdragon Satellite never launched, it’s hard to say exactly what the difference would be between a “standards-based”platform and Snapdragon Satellite, but we can take a few guesses. Qualcomm and Iridium’s solution used the proprietary Iridium protocol, just like a lot of big-antenna satellite phones. The alternative would be the 3GPP standard “5G NTN”(Non-Terrestrial Networks) used by devices like the Motorola Satellite Link (that device has a MediaTek chip and connects to Inmarsat satellites). Qualcomm’s press release in January promised eventual support for this, saying, “Snapdragon Satellite is planned to support 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN), as NTN satellite infrastructure and constellations become available.”Qualcomm already has a few 5G NTN projects going.
The original press release made the project seem like standards-compliant two-way SMS, saying, “Snapdragon Satellite offers truly global coverage from pole to pole and can support two-way messaging for emergency use, SMS texting, and other messaging applications.”Qualcomm showed pictures of a Qualcomm-branded messaging app, though, with its own address book, message list, and targeting system, which was certainly out of the ordinary. Usually, Android manufacturers like to rebrand upstream Qualcomm and Google features and take credit for them.
The competing Motorola Satellite Link does not send SMS and needs the sender and receiver to use a proprietary app. No one is quite sure how billing would have worked with Qualcomm’s solution, but Motorola’s hotspot requires yet another monthly subscription, from $5 to $30 per month, or $60 per year.
Speaking of Google, the Android team is also working on building satellite APIs into Android’s telephony stack. The project was originally announced for Android 14 but didn’t make the final cut. It might come in a quarterly release, though it doesn’t look to be very far along at the moment. Whatever Qualcomm’s solution ends up being, the Android ecosystem’s deep-seated Apple envy should keep the work going.