Apple's Emergency SOS via satellite now available to iPhone 14 users in New Zealand

New Zealand iPhone 14 users are now able to contact emergency services and loved ones via a satellite when no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage is available.

It could be a crucial tool for Kiwis who get into serious trouble in remote locations while tramping, fishing or hunting, or in areas that have been cut off during a disaster like Cyclone Gabrielle.

The technology has been been described as 'game-changing' and has already been credited with saving lives in other countries since it was launched late last year. On Monday, Aotearoa and Australia became the 13th and 14th nations it has been rolled out to.

Apple's Emergency SOS via satellite will prompt a user to launch it if they attempt to call 111 in an area of no coverage. That'll trigger a short questionnaire that asks the most important questions emergency services need answered before guiding the user to make a connection with a satellite by pointing the iPhone in the right direction.

Their questionnaire responses along with their medical ID, iPhone battery level, GPS coordinates and altitude will then be sent to an Apple relay centre. Further questions can be asked via a subsequent text conversation - if the user is able to continue texting - to gather more information about the situation before the specialist at the relay centre then sends the message on to emergency services.

Apple iPhone Emergency SOS via satellite questionnaire asked for emergency services.
Photo credit: supplied/Apple

If the iPhone user has emergency contacts set up, they can opt for those contacts to also receive the messages sent to the relay centre.

It's an easy interface to use and to try it out a demo has been added to iPhone 14s that will show users how to connect to a satellite, but in demo mode doesn't actually contact emergency services.

For Kiwis out in the wop-wops who aren't in an emergency but want to keep their loved ones on top of where they are, the satellite technology can be used to manually share their location via the Find My app, too.

Apple's Emergency SOS via satellite sharing location via Find My app in New Zealand.
Photo credit: supplied/Apple

Both One NZ and 2degrees recently announced plans to introduce satellite-boosted cellular coverage that is promised to end blackspots in Aotearoa, which Callum Gillespie of Coastguard NZ said could mean "a life-saving difference".

"Issues of people being able to get in touch when they're in need of assistance should become a thing of the past," Gillespie told Newshub.

However, satellite-boosted cellular coverage is planned to be activated at some point next year at the earliest. Apple's satellite technology is available from today.

How does Emergency SOS via Satellite work?

The iPhone is far from the first device able to connect to satellites for communication and location sharing, but it's the first common mobile phone able to do so.

"Previously, connecting to a satellite required a dedicated device which was really catered to users who are willing to pay for them and invest the time and effort into learning how they worked," Ronak Shah, Apple's director of platform product marketing, told Newshub.

"And you had to be willing to carry a secondary device. For most people - like casual weekend hikers - a dedicated satellite device doesn't make a ton of sense."

Apple Emergency SOS via satellite in New Zealand.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Achieving a reliable connection between an iPhone and a satellite took a combination of software and hardware development, including getting multiple antennas inside the phone working together simultaneously.

"Existing satellite phones and devices rely on huge antennas, often protruding out of the device," Arun Mathias, Apple's vice-president of wireless technologies and ecosystem, told Newshub.

"We had to invent something different to communicate with these satellites and that started with finding frequencies that worked with the iPhone and also with the satellites out there.

"Connecting an iPhone to a satellite that is flying over 1300km above and moving at a speed of about 25,000km/h is quite a challenge and very different from connecting to stationary cell towers.

"On the hardware side, we introduced custom components to optimise the receive and transmit parts for satellite communication. On the software side, we built a whole new communication stack to handle the wireless communications with the satellite, which includes a whole new waveform and all the layers, including custom link and network layers."

Apple's Emergency SOS via satellite now available in New Zealand for iPhone 14 users running iOS 16.4 or later.
What the person sending the emergency SOS messages sees (L) and the copy sent in real-time to their emergency contacts (R). Photo credit: Newshub.

Establishing the connection was a major challenge, but then sending information across that connection was another hurdle to jump.

"We had to build a solution that worked in the extremely limited amount of bandwidth that's available," said Mathias.

"Since we knew that this is for text messages for communication with emergency services, we trained the compression algorithm using words that are commonly used in such interactions. We were able to reduce the average size of a message to a third with this compression, which means the messages take a third of the time to send."

Apple partnered with satellite provider Globalstar for the service, a company founded in 1991 that was already using frequencies approved for use between satellites and mobile devices and frequencies that overlapped with terrestrial cellular bands already in the iPhone.

But in addition to the hardware and software work carried out on the iPhone 14 range, the satellites also had to be optimised.

"We worked with Globalstar to change how their satellites operated by adding a new high power mode that maximises the transmission power to the ground within regulatory requirements," Mike Trela, Apple's senior director of satellite connectivity group, told Newshub.

"A customised radio protocol was developed from the ground up and optimised the link between the iPhone 14 and satellites. This unique radio protocol is enabled by software on the iPhone and an Apple proprietary system developed in Globalstar's ground stations."

Of course, all the back-end work that went into getting iPhones to use satellites to communicate with emergency services would be useless if it was too difficult to be used by everyday people. The best way to see the work that went into the user interface is to try it out.

Emergency SOS via satellite for iPhone 14 by Apple launches in New Zealand on May 15, 2023.
Photo credit: supplied/Apple

To use the demo of the Emergency SOS via satellite on an iPhone 14, you need to be outside with a clear view of the sky, running running iOS 16.4 or later and have location services turned on before doing the following:

  1. Open settings
  2. Tap 'Emergency SOS'
  3. Under Emergency SOS via satellite, tap 'Try Demo'.

Another safety feature launched in the iPhone 14 range was car crash detection and this can work in conjunction with the satellite functionality. If your phone detects you've had a serious car crash outside of cellular or Wi-Fi coverage and you're unresponsive, it can automatically use a satellite to alert emergency services and share your location, Apple said.

Since its initial launch in North America in late 2022, there have been multiple accounts of Emergency SOS via satellite being used to help people in distress.

Among those stories is a man who used it to be rescued after getting stranded in snow in Alaska and two women in British Columbia using it after also getting stuck in a snowstorm.

In April a group of three students canyoning in Utah credited the technology with saving their lives after they got stuck.

They began to suffer symptoms of hypothermia while trapped in a "deep pool" located around 150m deep under "sheer, rock walls" which meant they had no cellular coverage, but also meant satellite connectivity was particularly difficult.

"About every 20 minutes a satellite would line up where we were in the canyon and by holding the phone up we could get a signal where we could text 911 to Emery County and that definitely saved our butts," one of them told local news outlet KUTV.

A dramatic helicopter rescue in California was captured on camera after a couple drove off the road in a huge forest and plunged 90m down a cliff. One of them had an iPhone 14 that detected the crash, then they were able to use the satellite SOS service to contact authorities.

The Montrose Search and Rescue Team said Apple's relay centre was able to give it "an accurate latitude and longitude for the victims".

"Air Rescue 5 was able to locate the victims and insert a paramedic. The paramedic learned the patients, a male and female in their 20s, had mild to moderate injuries. The helicopter was able to hoist the victims out of the canyon and transport them to a local area hospital."

Mathias told Newshub seeing these stories has been "incredibly satisfying".

"It makes it all worth it - all the effort that we put into enabling this, seeing it actually save people's lives," he told Newshub.

"It's a different kind of feature in that we hope the volume of people who use it is actually low. But for the few people that need it, it's there, and we've been able to save lives by getting them help. That is incredibly rewarding."

Using the satellite features will be free for two years from today for existing users of any of the iPhone 14 range in New Zealand, or for two years from the date of activation of any iPhone 14 bought from now on. Apple hasn't announced what the cost will be after that point, but if they do make it a paid service, said people will be able to opt out if they choose.

Both the Emergency SOS and Find My actions that communicate with satellites require the iPhone 14 to be running iOS 16.4 or later.

For an emergency contact to see a live transcript of the satellite-powered conversation with emergency services as well as the location, they'll need to be running iOS 16.4 or later as well as iMessage. Emergency contacts using a different type of mobile or an iPhone with an older iOS will still see the location and type of emergency, just not the live transcript.

New Zealand and Australia getting access to the service today means they join a list of countries also including Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, the UK and the US that already have it.

Apple plans to continue rolling it out to further countries in the future.