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Apple launches emergency system for people who can't access cell service

TORONTO — As Canada’s top telecommunications companies face pressure to ensure Canadians can reach emergency responders in the event of a major outage, Apple is rolling out a new service that will accomplish just that. The Cupertino, Calif.
Shoppers stand near the Apple logo in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Apple is rolling out a new system that will help iPhone 14 users in Canada reach emergency responders in the event they can't connect to cellular or Wi-Fi service. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Ng Han Guan

TORONTO — As Canada’s top telecommunications companies face pressure to ensure Canadians can reach emergency responders in the event of a major outage, Apple is rolling out a new service that will accomplish just that.

The Cupertino, Calif. tech giant says its new Emergency SOS system, available on iPhone 14 devices in Canada this week, will help people without cellular or Wi-Fi service connect to a satellite to report an emergency or call for help in even the most remote locations.

“There are always places that you will never be able to fully cover with cell towers like national parks or rural areas, and so when there is an emergency it becomes a problem very fast,” said Maxime Veron, Apple’s director of iPhone product marketing. 

“Imagine that you are hiking, for instance, and you’re on your own and you fall and break something or you roll your ankle, and the night is coming and you haven’t seen anyone for an hour. You know you need help because you’re not sure you’ll be able to go back to your truck or campsite, so what do you do?"

He said users will be able to tap to answer a series of questions — what's the emergency, who needs help? — to determine which emergency personnel are best suited to respond. They can also choose to notify emergency contacts programmed into their phones and send along their location and the nature of their emergency.

Their phone will then try to make a connection with one of Globalstar's 24 low-orbit satellites to relay their answers and contact requests to public-safety answering points, call centres that can dispatch emergency responders and reach out to loved ones. 

If they have a clear view of the sky and horizon, the connection is most likely to be made, but trees, hills, mountains, canyons and tall structures can block the signal, Veron said. In the event the signal is blocked, the phone will provide instructions for what direction the user should move in to try to make a connection.

“Connecting from an iPhone to a satellite that's flying over 800 miles above and at a speed of 15,000 miles per hour is quite a challenge, and it's actually a very different challenge than connecting to stationary cell towers,” said Arun Mathias, Apple’s vice-president of wireless technologies and ecosystem.

“Existing satellite phones rely on huge antennas, often they're protruding out of the device and that obviously wouldn't work for iPhone, so we had to invent something different for iPhone to be able to reliably communicate.”

Creation of the system started with Apple finding frequencies — signals that help devices connect to networks — that were already used by satellites and then making hardware and software modifications, so iPhones could make connections without bulky antennas and messages to emergency responders could be compressed.

The company was able to reduce the average size of messages to one third of their size, which means it takes about one third of the time to send the message, said Mathias.

Apple worked with telecommunications companies to ensure iPhones would be able to move from the satellite back to cellular services or Wi-Fi, but such businesses have no role in the actual operation of the Emergency SOS service, he added. 

The service will be free for the first two years, but Apple hasn't said whether or what it will charge beyond that timeframe. The service will have a demo mode for people to test out without calling for help.

The launch comes as Canada is grappling with how to best facilitate access to emergency services in the event of telecommunications network outages. 

Last week, Telus Corp. had an outage across parts of southern Ontario, which left customers unable to call 911 from a landline.

On July 8, Rogers Communications Inc. had an even wider service disruption that saw millions of Canadians unable to reach police, paramedic and fire services with distress calls. 

Rogers couldn’t transfer customers to competing carriers, despite offers of assistance from competitors Bell and Telus.

It was also unable to shut down its radio access network, which would have automatically connected customers to another carrier for 911 calls.

The federal government ordered Rogers and the other telecom companies to develop a backup plan to prevent a similar disruption.

In September, the companies reached a formal agreement to "ensure and guarantee" emergency roaming and other mutual assistance during major outages.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:RCI, TSX:T, TSX:BCE)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press