If a December report in Bloomberg turns out to be correct, there’s a good chance Apple satellites will soon be joining an ever growing constellation in low-Earth orbit. Apparently, a secret team of about a dozen employees has been working on the satellite technology, which the company hopes to roll out sometime in the next five years, according to people familiar with the work. These workers come from the aerospace, satellite, and antenna design industries.
The idea is to beam internet service directly to devices like the iPhone, iPad, and Mac to provide access to the web all without traditional wireless networks and cell towers. That could be absolutely huge for the Cupertino, California-based company, if true. It could, in theory, make it possible for the company to bypass ties with internet service providers, doling out its own service along with its devices.
Those close to the matter say that Apple’s satellite-building efforts are still nascent and could be abandoned. They also said it’s unclear, so far, exactly what the company plans to do with the satellites if the work does continue forward. One thing is clear based on the report: Tim Cook is behind the effort, which means this is definitely a company priority, at least for the moment.
What’s at stake if Apple does enter this crevice of the space race? A whole lot, it turns out. For one, Apple could reduce its dependence on traditional cell phone carriers or even begin to offer device-to-device communication methods that we haven’t yet seen before. Or, the aim could be more precise location tracking for applications like Apple Maps.
It’s still not even clear if Apple wants to take on the costly responsibility of developing and deploying its own satellite constellation or if it just wants to put in place its own on-the-ground equipment that could access existing satellites already launched by other firms.
The biggest giveaway that Apple truly is working on satellite tech is a few new key hires across network communications, aerospace, and content delivery.
Regardless of what exactly Apple is up to in the satellite arena, it’s not operating in a bubble. For its part, Amazon is planning to deploy 3,236 of its own satellites to provide internet access to parts of the world that remain untapped. Facebook also wants a piece of the pie.
In 2014, Google acquired a company called Skybox Imagine and then rechristened it Terra Bella. The company owned a constellation of seven high-res satellites that could provide Google Earth with far more crisp images than the fleet of 60 mid-resolution satellites the company already owned and operated. That transaction cost a whopping $500 million. Shortly thereafter, though, Google resold the Terra Bella satellite business to another firm for an undisclosed sum in 2017.
But all companies are operating in the shadow of SpaceX, which has a vision to eventually send 42,000 of its Starlink satellites into space. As of Monday, when SpaceX sent a Falcon 9 rocket into space to deploy 60 Starlink satellites, the total number has reached at least 172, which means SpaceX is the world’s largest commercial satellite operator.
But launching communication satellites skyward isn’t full of just success stories. For example, Iridium LLC filed for bankruptcy back in 1999 and another firm, Teledesic abandoned its “internet from the sky” plans over 10 years ago.
“The lessons of prior failures like Iridium, Globalstar and Teledesic [show that] that it’s really hard to find a viable business plan for multibillion-dollar satellite communications projects,” Tim Farrar, a satellite expert and principal at TMF associates, told Bloomberg.
But what does this mean for your iPhone? It helps to look at what Google has done with its Pixel phones and its mobile virtual network, Google Fi.
While Google does not own the wireless network infrastructure in place to provide service to its customers phones, it is the custodian of service provided through cell phone towers owned by Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular. So, Pixel owners are getting their wireless service from Google, and Google pays those carriers for using their infrastructure.
While we can’t say for sure that some version of Apple Wireless is on the way, it looks like that’s the likely move, here. Considering Apple is also rumored to be working on its own silicon to replace Intel CPUs in its line of Macs and MacBooks, developing its own cellular service ecosystem is not entirely out of the question.
If Apple really does takes things a step further than Google—owning all of its own satellites and receivers—that could mean iPhone users will have freedom from carriers. Well, freedom from carriers that aren’t called “Apple.”