Apple’s Satellite Emergency SOS put to the test

I spent last Friday morning circling a hilltop in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I had an iPhone 14 in my hand and was trying to see the sky clearly so I could connect with a satellite. I wasn’t exactly alone or lost in the wilderness, but I pretended I was to get a feel for Apple’s new Emergency SOS via satellite.

While this feature was announced in September, it will officially begin rolling out later today in the US and Canada before rolling out to France, Germany, Ireland and the UK in December. The tone is simple: if you find yourself in a difficult situation with no Wi-Fi or cellular signal, you can still ask for help. However, it’s not quite like a satellite phone. The main difference is that you can’t make a voice call – you can only send text messages.

Full disclosure: I didn’t in reality send a message to my local emergency supervisors while testing the feature. It would be a bullshit move and distract from people who need help. Instead, Apple gave me a demo phone and all messages were sent to their forwarding service center. In a real event, your messages are sent to the nearest emergency services. If there aren’t any nearby that accept messages, Apple’s forwarding service will kick in to call them for you. Also, while the service will be free for the first two years, you’ll have to pay for it eventually, although we don’t know pricing yet.

To initiate an emergency SOS message, you must first try calling 911. Even if your carrier isn’t available, emergency calls can be placed through another carrier’s network if one is available. If your iPhone 14 fails to connect in any way, you will see an “Emergency SMS via satellite” SOS icon in the lower right corner. It took about 30 seconds to appear.

a:hover]:text-black [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black text-gray-63″>Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

Once you tap that button, you’ll see a “Report Emergency” message. Next, you will be taken through a short questionnaire where you can specify what kind of situation you are in. At this point, you can choose whether you want to notify your emergency contacts as well. The questionnaire is easy to understand overall, even though I was sane and unharmed during my demo. I guess it’s more difficult if you’re in pain or delusions.

Next, you’ll see an image of a dimmed satellite with an arrow indicating which way you should turn. Your task is to point the phone in that direction until it turns green. And then… wait. Much.

Regular texting is pretty instant, but satellite texting requires more patience. If you are blessed with clear open skies, it takes about 15-30 seconds to send a message. But if there are hills blocking the horizon or you’re in an area with dense foliage, you might want to wait a minute or more. I was on a hill under a big oak tree in Prospect Park. Sometimes my messages are sent relatively quickly. (And by fast, I mean about 15-30 seconds.) Other times, I was clearly reminded to load pages over 56K dial-up.

Texting via satellite requires more patience

The initial text you send will include the emergency questionnaire, your Medical ID (if you have it set up), and your location. There will be some back and forth, mostly so you can give emergency services a description of your location. Once you’ve been notified that emergency services are on their way, you can sit back and wait a little longer.

I’ve run the process a couple of times and it’s not really possible to predict how long each message will take to send or receive. After a while, you learn to keep your texts descriptive and snappy to minimize the wait. For example, it will be much faster if you send “Near a large rock on a hill next to an oak tree” rather than just a few sentences. It seems slow compared to regular text messaging, but on average, the whole process only took about three to five minutes.

Why messages take some time to send… And receive — I admit I’ve strayed a couple of times. Luckily, there’s also a handy mini status bar, so I can keep track of a message being sent and satellite location. I also appreciated that there was a tactile buzz whenever I unknowingly moved out of satellite range.

Photo of Emergency SOS via satellite messaging screen with emergency services, along with a message progress bar.

I was happy to discover you Not you have to raise your arm or hold the phone in a particular way to connect to a satellite. As long as it’s not in a backpack or pocket, you can keep your phone as normal. My arms got a little tired, but that’s only because I was trying to film the demo and take some pictures.

Since satellites move quickly across the sky, there’s a high chance you’ll have to turn around a lot, kind of like a dog chasing its tail. I was concerned about this, as you may not be able to move easily if you break your leg. So it was reassuring to know you can rotate your phone if you’re still. It’s just easier to get the clearest signal if you Power move.

The last thing you want is to learn how to use it on occasion an emergency. Thankfully, there’s a demo mode. You can access it by going to Settings > Emergency SOS > Satellite Emergency SOS > Try demo.

The demo mode gives you a good idea of ​​how the real feature works. You will be shown a brief overview of how it works, then you can temporarily deactivate your mobile to try to connect to a satellite. After that, you will participate in a sample conversation with mock emergency services.

iPhone 14 screenshot showing an illustration telling the user to turn in the direction of the satellite.

If you frequent a particular campsite or hike, it’s a good idea to try the demo mode the next time you visit. This way, you can familiarize yourself with the feature and also get an idea of ​​your iPhone’s satellite connectivity in that area. If it’s crap, you might want to consider an alternative or backup device like the Garmin InReach.

While satellite connectivity is primarily for emergencies, you can use it in other ways through the Find My app. Let’s say you’re in charge of organizing a picnic at a state park, but your phone has zero bars and you have no way of communicating where you are. Instead, you can send your location via satellite to anyone you share your location with in the Find My app. You probably won’t use it much if you live in a city, but I can see it coming in handy in rural areas.

Photo showing a user successfully connected to a satellite in range.

Ideally, you’ll never actually have to use satellite emergency messages. That said, it worked pretty well, and I’d rather have this in my back pocket than nothing. I will caution that my experience has been in a city park and I have never been in any real danger, so your mileage may vary in a more challenging location or during an actual emergency. My only “complaint” is that it requires a lot of patience, but that’s to be expected when you’re sending things via satellite. If this is a feature you can see yourself using, I highly recommend giving the demo a try And take the time to set up your Medical ID and emergency contacts in advance. You know, as the Boy and Girl Scouts say, it pays to be prepared.

Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge

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