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. 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 any nearby that accept 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 — though 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 whatsoever, 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, though 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.
Playing the waiting game
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 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 sent and the satellite’s position. I also appreciated that there was a haptic buzz whenever I unknowingly moved out of satellite range.
I was chuffed to find out you don’t have to raise your arm or hold your phone in any particular way to connect to a satellite. So long as it’s not in a backpack or pocket, you can hold your phone normally. My arms got a bit tired, but that’s only because I was trying to film the demo and take pictures.
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 move.
Practicing in demo mode
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 partake in a sample conversation with faux emergency services.
If you frequent a particular camping or hiking location, it’s a smart idea to give the demo mode a whirl the next time you visit. That way, you can familiarize yourself with the feature and also get a sense of your iPhone’s satellite connectivity in that area. If it’s crap, you may want to consider an alternative or backup device like the Garmin InReach.
Sending location via Find My
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.
To send your location, you just open the Find My app, navigate to the Me tab, scroll down to My Location via Satellite, and tap Send My Location. Once again, you’ll have to orient yourself toward a satellite and wait for everything to send. It’s easy to do, but I noticed you can also only send your location once every 15 minutes or so.
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