The Apple iPhone's New Emergency Satellite Feature Is Saving Lives, But Should I Rely on It?

Two birds with one stone? Or risky business? Photo: Sophia Stark

The Inertia

New iPhones have a fancy feature particularly attractive to outdoor enthusiasts. The iPhone 14 and newer (as well as Apple Watches equipped with cellular) have the ability to place satellite emergency calls and texts when out of range of cellular service. In doing so, Apple has placed themselves in the satellite phone/communicator market traditionally dominated by companies like Garmin and Spot. As I look to upgrade my iPhone 12, I can’t help but wonder: Could buying the new iPhone kill two birds with one stone and make the hefty purchase of a satellite communicator redundant or obsolete?

My problem, or superpower depending on how you look at it, is that I’m a minimalist. I don’t like accumulating items, especially those that sit dormant for the majority (or all) of the year. And I don’t like to replace things that aren’t broken. I’m perfectly fine with my 10-year-old Nissan hatchback and the same snowboard boots I’ve used since high school. I still use a surfboard that I bought in 2008.

But as an avid hiker/backpacker, I’ve learned it’s important to balance my minimalism with necessity, and comfort. Yes, my cheap, bulky Coleman tent worked just fine for years, however, my lightweight REI Quarterdome tent is a welcome relief to my load-bearing shoulders. But when it comes to buying an emergency satellite communication device for wilderness experiences, I’ve always delayed that purchase, brushing it off as expensive and unnecessary.

I’ve backpacked dozens and dozens of times, from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the glaciers of Patagonia. I’ve never had one of these emergency devices – one that allows for calls or simply sends an emergency signal. My thriftiness and minimalism could be chalked up as foolishness or recklessness. That’d be fair criticism. But I’ve always felt like the satellite device was just an extra cost, or at least one that I could push back until my next big trip.

There are various brands and styles of satellite communication devices. The products range from simple G.P.S. trackers to sophisticated two-way communication tools complete with weather reports. These adventure-oriented devices cost anywhere from USD $100-$600, plus a monthly subscription that can be as little as $15 per month, or as much as $200 per month. It all depends on the features that you want your device to have.

But now that the new iPhones have satellite capabilities, I’m naturally intrigued by the idea of consolidating two expensive items into one. Aside from the emergency calls and texts, iPhone 14s and newer can also keep your location updated on the “Find My” app via satellite. Plus, your emergency contacts saved in your phone are notified if you activate the emergency feature. If you dial 911 (in the U.S.) in this situation, the phone automatically gives you a series of prompts to explain your emergency and aim your device at a satellite to contact Apple’s emergency call center, which will then relay the information to the relevant rescue personnel. The internet is already flooded with stories of people who’ve used this feature to save themselves or others.

According to Apple’s website, the iPhone emergency calling is free for the first two years after activation of a phone, so presumably, there will be a cost associated with this service in the future.

It sounds perfect for the thrifty outdoorsman like myself. But can the iPhone really replace a traditional satellite device? Can I depend on the iPhone?

To find answers, I went to social media to crowdsource information from fellow outdoors people – asking others in hiking-related groups on Facebook what their iPhone emergency experiences have been like. The responses I got were helpful. 

Several people seemed to profile just like myself. They thought that perhaps they could save a few bucks by just having the iPhone. 

“I bought (the iPhone) last year specifically because of the S.O.S. feature,” Jamie Camp of Oceanside, California told me. “I frequently climb in Joshua Tree which has no cell reception. We hike out sometimes for an hour to remote areas and I’m always concerned if an injury occurs, how we would get help. Having the phone on me with the feature makes me feel a bit more prepared.”

Another Facebook user, Aidan Caruso, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in eastern Arizona, told me that the iPhone’s satellite feature has been particularly useful in her line of work out in remote areas. 

“When it goes into S.O.S. mode I’m able to update my location for my friends even without service,” explained Caruso. “That’s what I mainly use it for. (One time) I was camping in an area with no cell service for a week and got my truck stuck. I was able to send my location out to my family just in case I was there for an extended period of time and needed to be rescued. I ended up getting my truck out but it was still nice to know people knew where I was.”

Caruso also added that her work does provide her with a Spot satellite device as well. And Camp said she was considering buying a Garmin product after reading an article about the limitations of the iPhone’s satellite capabilities.

There are stories on the internet that complain about the communication with Apple’s emergency call center, noting that Apple’s responses at times have been “worryingly vague.” There are also clear advantages that a satellite device has over an iPhone. Satellite phones have significantly longer battery life, are better-built to withstand the elements, can provide service globally, and, depending on the device, can be used for non-emergency communication as well. 

The iPhone can only be used in emergency situations and is currently limited to 16 countries, excluding most of the developing world.

Garmin isn’t particularly worried (at least publicly) about competing with Apple’s satellite feature. 

“It would be difficult to characterize a smartphone product as a true competitor to inReach,” Chip Noble, Garmin’s senior product manager for inReach devices, said. “The inReach Mini 2 offers battery life of up to 30 days. What’s more, Garmin inReach devices are impact resistant, so they’re built to withstand the elements. Smartphones, on the other hand, are fragile devices with screens that can shatter, rendering them useless.”

“Garmin staffs a professionally trained 24-7 response coordination center that goes beyond ensuring an S.O.S. is relayed to emergency dispatchers,” Noble added. “Coordinators engage correct local authorities, communicate with your emergency contacts, and keep you up-to-date on progress until the incident is resolved. InReach devices do not require the device to be continually aimed at a passing satellite for either messaging or declaring an S.O.S.”

For these reasons, several hikers on Facebook commented on my posts saying they only trust their Garmin devices and have, in fact, used them successfully in emergencies on a number of occasions. 

One story that I received from Washington state resident Sue Magyar stood out. When on a river trip in Idaho, several heavy mudslides blocked the road that she and her family were driving during a raft shuttle, trapping five adults, two kids, and two dogs in a remote valley. They had an iPhone and a Spot X device at their disposal. The iPhone was unable to connect to a satellite, likely due to the steep canyon they were stuck in, but the Spot X was able to successfully connect and contact emergency responders.

“Definitely don’t rely on the iPhone satellite,” said Magyar. “I just don’t think you can count on it working for an emergency like this. I (recommend) using other devices, maybe even those simpler devices that are just an emergency button. I get the appeal of an iPhone. Why do I need to invest in this other device? But I think if you’re adventuring, you just can’t make assumptions.”

Magyar’s problems with the iPhone satellite are interesting because both Apple and Spot use the same Globalstar satellite network. On the other hand, a competitor like Garmin, uses a different network, Iridium. Some Facebook commenters (of course, be cautious about information obtained on social media) theorized in my posts that the iPhone doesn’t have as strong of an antenna as the other satellite devices, but I don’t see anything online that definitively proves that. 

Whether you should rely on the iPhone or a dedicated satellite communicator depends on the user and their requirements. You should consider if you are hiking in remote or well-trafficked areas, which countries you plan to use your device in, and the risk level of the activities you partake in. As for me, all signs from my research seem to be pointing towards acquiring a satellite device and not depending solely on the iPhone. However, we’ll see if my minimalistically driven brain will actually shell out the cash for a new device, or simply be content upgrading my iPhone. Regardless, it’s a nifty feature for Apple and a good start for enhancing safety. I can’t imagine it will take too long for Apple to improve its satellite capabilities to more strongly compete in the market.


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