Finally a fun iPhone 13 rumor! If Apple holds to its traditional schedule we’re mere weeks away from a new iPhone, and until now the rumors have been slight and, dare I say boring. Yet noted Apple prognosticator and analyst Ming-Chi Kuo is now claiming the iPhone 13 could have the ability to make satellite calls built right in, according to MacRumors.
On Monday, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported Apple is developing emergency features that rely on satellite connections and said that while the next iPhone could have related hardware, those features are unlikely to be ready before next year at the earliest.
In a note to investors, Kuo claims that the iPhone 13 will be able to connect directly to low earth orbit (or LEO) satellites thanks to a customized Qualcomm X60 baseband chip. LEO satellites are probably best known as the backbone of Elon Musk’s Starlink internet service which relies on satellites in a lower orbit to beam internet down to customers and avoid some of the common pitfalls of satellite internet, including high latency, and common blackouts.
But Starlink isn’t the only company using LEO satellites for connectivity. Hughesnet and OneWeb have combined forces to roll out a competitor to Starlink and Immarsat announced a new constellation intended to blend with terrestrial 5G networks for a more global solution.
It appears that the real key to this iPhone rumor is Globalstar, which saw its stock skyrocket earlier this year when Qualcomm announced its upcoming X65 chip would support Globalstar’s Band n53 tech. 3GPP had previously approved Band n53 as a 5G band.
However, as PCMag’s resident 5G expert Sascha Segan points out on Twitter, Globalstar’s ambition for using the allotted bandwidth is strictly Earth-based. Adding a customized modem with support for n53 (among other bands) would give the next iPhone the cachet of offering early “global 5G support,” even if those signals can’t leave the planet yet. While that opens up wilder speculation that Apple could work with Globalstar on some kind of private network, simply adding n53 as an anchor for carrier aggregation or Licensed Assisted Access can help improve coverage or boost speeds when you need it most.
Qualcomm's x65 modem supports b53/n53 but the x60 does not. However, the Qualcomm modem in the iPhones may be an ... erm, x60-and-a-half. In other words, it could be an x60 + b53/n53. This DOES NOT IMPLY TALKING TO SATELLITES. It's a ground based band G'star wants to enhance LTE— Sascha Segan (@saschasegan) August 30, 2021
If this rumor is true the X60 would likely be supporting another element of 5G, which is currently comprised of a whole mix of technologies, including the ultrafast but limited range millimeter-wave and the more widespread, but slower C-Band.
An iPhone with LEO 5G would provide support in places that don’t yet have towers beaming down the other forms of 5G speed—particularly useful in many rural areas that often struggle to get 3G or 4G connectivity.
What any kind of satellite connection means for battery life remains to be seen. There’s also the tree factor. Hopefully, no matter what it connects to, the X60 chip in the iPhone 13 won’t be as susceptible to arboreal interference as Starlink’s Dishy McFlatface.
Update August 30th, 6:30PM ET: Added additional information from Sascha Segan about Globalstar and n53, and a report from Bloomberg about potential satellite-ready hardware in new iPhones.