Chatter about the iPhone 14 getting satellite connectivity support is already out there, and in August 2022, Elon Musk made waves by announcing that Starlink satellites will beam internet to mobiles phones hooked to T-Mobile’s network. It appears that satellite connectivity for phones will make a major impact next year, starting with handsets running Android 14.
Hiroshi Lockheimer — who is currently an SVP at Google overseeing Android, Chrome, Chrome OS, Play, and Photos — tweeted that “user experiences for phones that can connect to satellites” will arrive with the next version of Android. The Google executive didn’t go into the details of how satellite connectivity for phones running Android 14 will pan out, but it is definitely an intriguing prospect.
Wild to think about user experiences for phones that can connect to satellites. When we launched G1 in ’08 it was a stretch to get 3G + Wifi working. Now we’re designing for satellites. Cool! Excited to support our partners in enabling all of this in the next version of Android!
— Hiroshi Lockheimer (@lockheimer) September 1, 2022
As far as the T-Mobile Starlink deal goes, satellite connectivity will mostly be restricted to emergency scenarios, letting users send a message or make an SOS call when cellular connectivity is not available. This will be particularly helpful for people hit by natural disasters that often disrupt the telecommunication infrastructure in the affected regions. During the SpaceX and T-Mobile conference with Musk, it was revealed that phone-satellite connectivity bandwidth will be limited to 2 to 4 megabits per cellular zone — plus, it won’t require any special smartphone hardware. “We’re using a piece of spectrum your phone already knows,” T-Mobile chief Mike Sievert was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.
Google is not exactly alien to the concept of satellites talking with phones. After trying its hands with internet-beaming balloons — a project referred to as Project Loon — Google invested in SpaceX back in 2015 to support its satellite endeavors, as reported by The New York Times several years ago. As well, a Google patent application filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office talked about how “satellites can provide communication services to areas where wired cables cannot reach.”
Another patent titled “Satellite Communications Adapter For Cellular Handset” details satellite-based narrow-band communication that would link a phone with satellites orbiting in space. At the heart of it all is a narrow-band Internet-of-Things (NB-IoT) radio access technology (RAT); it would kick into action when the system (that is, the phone) detects that it is out of the regular cellular coverage zone. Back in 2021, Google was also spotted hiring for roles that had something to do with satellite internet providers (via 9to5Google).
Lockheimer’s tweet mentions that Google is currently working with partners to enable the satellite communication feature for phones starting next year. However, it is unclear if the term partners refers to satellite connectivity service providers like SpaceX and OneWeb or celluar carriers like T-Mobile, or both. Irrespective of business partners working with Google, the ability to link up with satellites as an emergency communication system on Android devices would be of great convenience.