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How Messages via Satellite will work on iOS 18 and how much it will cost

(For now, it's free.)

Apple

Apple is slowly turning the iPhone into a fairly capable satellite communications device. It first rolled out Emergency SOS via Satellite on the iPhone 14 lineup. While you were previously limited to relying on the spacecraft for communications only when dialing emergency services, in iOS 18 this capability will apply to all situations where you're away from cellular or Wi-Fi coverage. I got to check out the updated experience at Apple Park, here's how it will work with iMessage or SMS messages.

When you’ve been disconnected from cellular or Wi-Fi for some time, an alert will appear to say you’ll need to hop on satellite communications to send messages. Tapping this notification brings up the new connection assistant, which contains all your satellite-powered tools, like Find My, roadside assistance and emergency SOS.

You can start a chat from this page or just go to the Messages app, where a prompt will appear in the Dynamic Island to instruct you on how to find an overhead satellite. You can also go to the Satellite option in Settings or in the Control Center to get set up when cellular or Wi-Fi signals aren’t available.

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The connection experience here isn’t much different from before — you’ll be told what direction to point your iPhone, as well as suggestions to avoid obstructions. Once you’re linked, an indicator in the dynamic island shows a green check mark and it’ll continue to change colors and shapes if your connection begins to weaken.

To prevent networks getting congested with promotional SMS messages, Apple has made it so the person that’s off grid is the one who can initiate SMS chats over satellite. That is, except for people who are listed as your emergency contacts or your iCloud family members. Their messages will still come through when you’re on a satellite connection. Regardless of whether you’re using iMessage or SMS, you’ll only be able to send texts, emojis or tapback reactions. Compressing these into packages small enough to convey over satellite is already challenging, not to mention images and video.

In my demo on an iPhone that was tweaked so it couldn’t connect to Wi-Fi or cellular, I watched an Apple rep connect to an available satellite via the Dynamic Island’s interface, then send a text to another person. On the sender’s phone, the words “iMessage. Satellite” appeared above the blue bubble, and the same showed up on the recipient’s phone over the gray bubble. Read receipts aren’t supported over satellite, so I only saw the “delivered” and “sent” status labels under the bubbles.

It’s nice to see both SMS and iMessage supported over satellite, even if only the latter is end-to-end encrypted. Apple’s decision to include SMS is thoughtful, and though I’d like RCS to be covered as well, that platform’s messages are too large or complicated to compress effectively. They are, after all, going to satellite infrastructure over 800 miles away from Earth, and targeting spacecraft that are moving at 15,000 miles per hour.

The company still hasn’t shared details on the pricing for satellite connectivity and related features after its free trial is over, but for now, those with an iPhone 14 and newer will be able to use these features for free. Apple’s provision here is a little confusing at the moment, but basically you get two years of free satellite service from the time you purchase your new iPhone, and in November 2023 the company added another year to its free trial. In theory that’s a window of a total of three years, though it might depend on when you bought your iPhone, since Apple didn’t initially offer a two-year period.

iOS 18 is expected to come to iPhones this fall, and we'll undoubtedly find out more about Messages via Satellite before then. We'll update this article with more information as and when we get it.

Catch up here for all the news out of Apple's WWDC 2024.