The original purpose of cell phones was to allow calls over the cellular network, but that purpose seems to have become a distant memory these days. Now most cell phones are used for sending text messages, checking social media, browsing the web, taking photos, or almost anything other than making calls. Given the substantial power of modern-day smartphones and their reliance on traditional cellular and WiFi networks, we've sometimes wondered why other emergency communication functions aren't more prevalent.

Cell phones can be useful in off-grid settings, but external communication requires an active network. (Photo: onX)

Imagine if your smartphone could also work as a walkie-talkie, using radio waves to communicate in remote areas where cellular coverage and WiFi are unavailable. This would essentially fill in the gaps between those mainstream networks, and make cell phones vastly more useful in off-grid locations (or grid-down disasters). Although Motorola iDEN phones offer this feature, they're not exactly common in the consumer market. Reports surfaced this week to indicate that Apple had been developing a text-based radio communication feature for the iPhone, but has now put it on hold indefinitely. The project was called Off-Grid Radio Service, or OGRS (pronounced “ogres”) for short.

According to a report by The Information, Apple's OGRS would have used an Intel modem chip to transmit text messages from one iPhone to another over radio frequencies in the the 900-megahertz range. Based on the size and power limitations of the iPhone, it's likely that this would have been limited to relatively short ranges, much like a handheld walkie-talkie — think 1 to 2 miles in typical conditions, or a few more miles over flat terrain with no obstructions.

Just like handheld walkie-talkies, OGRS range would have been reduced in mountainous terrain.

The cancellation of this project may have been a result of several factors. First, Apple recently signed a deal with Intel competitor Qualcomm for 5G modems for its next batch of phones — some analysts have speculated that the Off-Grid Radio Service may have relied on the Intel chip. Additionally, development of OGRS was reportedly spearheaded by Apple executive Rubén Caballero, who took a personal interest in implementing the feature. Caballero left the company in April.

Although there may still be a chance that this feature is re-implemented in the future, the future of OGRS is not looking good given these changes at Apple. Still, we hope it gets a second chance, since it would add substantial value to a cell phone for hiking, off-roading, or survival situations.

Thanks to Steven Kuo for the tip about this announcement.

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