Appple is Working on a Technology to Bypass Wireless Networks


Apple has a secret team working on satellite technology to beam internet services directly to devices.

The Cupertino, a California-based iPhone maker has about a dozen engineers from the aerospace, satellite and antenna design industries working on a project that would use satellite technology to beam internet services directly to their devices. Those willing to speak about the project suggested the goal of deploying their results is earmarked at five years and the project is still early and could be abandoned. Yet, Apple CEO Tim Cook, has noticed the project and indicated it’s a company priority.

Apple’s work on communications satellites and next-generation wireless technology means the aim is likely to beam data to a user’s device, potentially mitigating the dependence on wireless carriers, or for linking devices together without a traditional network. Apple could also be exploring satellites for more precise location tracking for its devices, enabling improved maps and new features. Northrop Grumman Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. are some of the biggest satellite makers. What’s not clear is whether Apple intends to pursue the costly development of a satellite constellation itself or simply harness on-the-ground equipment that would take data from existing satellites and send it to mobile devices. Inc. plans to deploy more than 3,000 satellites as part of a future constellation.

“The lessons of prior failures like Iridium, Globalstar and Teledesic are that it’s really hard to find a viable business plan for multibillion-dollar satellite communications projects,” said Tim Farrar, a satellite expert and principal at TMF associates.

The team is led by Michael Trela and John Fenwick, former aerospace engineers who helped lead satellite imaging company Skybox Imaging before it sold to Google in 2014. The pair led Google’s satellite and spacecraft operations until leaving together in 2017 to begin a new initiative at Apple.

During their first year and a half at Apple, Trela and Fenwick explored the feasibility of developing satellite technology and understanding the problem they want to solve, and in recent months have started intensifying work on the project. Trela and Fenwick still work within Apple’s hardware engineering division, but now report to Riccio’s lieutenant in charge of iPhone engineering.

The team has recently added people from the wireless industry, including engineer Matt Ettus, who now helps lead the initiative. Ettus is one of the foremost names in wireless technologies. Apple has also hired Ashley Moore Williams, a longtime executive from Aerospace Corp. who focused on communication satellites, and Daniel Ellis, a former Netflix Inc. executive who has experience in building networks that can beam content and information on a global scale.

The work on satellite technology is one of several “special projects” -- an Apple term for skunkworks initiatives or development of major new product categories.

Under Cook, Apple has expanded its R&D budget by 14%, spending $16 billion in the 2019 fiscal year.

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