I spent last Friday morning turning around in circles atop a hill in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I had an iPhone 14 in hand, and I was trying to catch a clear view of the sky so I could connect with a satellite. I wasn’t exactly alone or lost in the wilderness, but I pretended like I was in order to get a feel for Apple’s new Emergency SOS via satellite.
While this feature was announced back in September, it’ll officially start rolling out later today in the US and Canada before launching in France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK in December. The pitch is simple: if you’re in a sticky situation without Wi-Fi or a cellular signal, you can still send for help. However, it’s not exactly like a satellite phone. The main difference is you can’t make a voice call — you can only text.
Full disclosure: I didn’t actually text my local emergency dispatchers when testing out the feature. That would be a dick move and distract from people who need help. Instead, Apple gave me a demo phone, and any texts were sent to its own relay service center. In a real event, your texts are sent to the closest emergency services. If there aren’t anyone nearby that accepts texts, Apple’s relay service will kick in to call them on your behalf. Also, while the service will be free for the first two years, you’ll eventually have to pay for it — although we don’t know pricing just yet.
To start an emergency SOS text, you have to try calling 911 first. Even if your carrier isn’t available, emergency calls can be sent through another carrier’s network if available. If your iPhone 14 can’t connect whatever, you’ll see an “Emergency Text via Satellite” SOS icon in the lower right-hand corner. This took around 30 seconds to pop up.
Once you tap that button, you’ll see a prompt to “Report Emergency.” After that, you’ll be taken through a brief questionnaire where you can specify what type of situation you’re in. At this point, you can choose if you also want to notify your emergency contacts. The questionnaire is easy to understand overall, although I was of sound mind and uninjured during my demo. I’d imagine it being more challenging if you’re in pain or delirious.
After that, you’ll see a graphic of a grayed-out satellite with an arrow indicating which way you should turn. Your job is to point your phone in that direction until it turns green. And then… you wait. A lot.
Regular texting is pretty instantaneous, but texting via satellite requires more patience. If you’re blessed with clear open skies, it takes around 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 could be waiting for a minute or longer. I was on a hill under a big oak tree in Prospect Park. Sometimes my messages are sent relatively quickly. (And by quickly, I mean about 15-30 seconds.) Other times, I was distinctly reminded of loading pages on 56K dial-up.
Texting via satellite requires more patience
The initial text you send will include the Emergency Questionnaire, your Medical ID (if you’ve set that up), and your location. There’ll be a few back-and-forths, mainly so you can give emergency services a description of your location. After you’ve been alerted that emergency services are en route, you can sit tight and wait some more.
I went through the process a couple of times, and there truly is no predicting how long each message will take to send or receive. After a bit, you learn to keep your texts descriptive and snappy to minimize waiting. For example, it’ll be much faster if you send “Near big rock on hill next to an oak tree” than a few sentences. It feels slow compared to regular texting, but on average, the whole process only took about three to five minutes.
Because texts take a while to send — and receive — I’ll admit I zoned out a few times. Luckily, there’s also a handy mini status bar, so I could keep track of whether a message was sent and the satellite’s position. I also appreciated that there was a haptic buzz whenever I unknowingly moved out of satellite range.
Because satellites move quickly across the sky, there’s a high chance you’ll have to turn around a lot, sort of like a dog chasing its tail. I was concerned about that, given you might not be able to move around easily if you break a leg. So it was reassuring to know that you can rotate the phone around if you’re immobile. It’s just easiest to get the clearest signal if you can moving.
The last thing you want is to learn how to use this during an emergency. Thankfully, there’s a demo mode. You can access it by going to Settings > Emergency SOS > Emergency SOS via Satellite > Try Demo.
The demo mode gives you a good idea of how the actual feature works. You’ll be shown a brief overview of how it works, and then you can temporarily turn off your cellular to try connecting to a satellite. After that, you’ll get to participate in a sample conversation with faux emergency services.
Although satellite connectivity is mostly for emergencies, you can use it in other ways via the Find My app. Say you’re in charge of setting up a picnic at a state park, but your phone’s got zero bars, and you’ve no way to communicate where you are. You can instead 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.
Ideally, you’ll never have to actually use emergency satellite texting. That said, it worked rather well, and I’d rather have this in my back pocket than nothing. I’ll caveat that my experience was in a city park, and I was never in any real danger, so your mileage may vary in a more challenging location or during an actual emergency. My only gripe 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 trying the demo and taking the time to set up your Medical ID and emergency contacts beforehand. You know, as the Boy and Girl Scouts say — it pays to be prepared.
Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge
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