British smartphone company Bullitt on Friday launched a new phone capable of sending text messages through space, joining the crowded race to commercialize satellite devices.
The phone, which fits into the “rugged” category of rugged phones, comes in two versions: the Caterpillar-branded Cat S75, aimed at the European market and will retail for €599 ($634.49), and the Motorola Defy 2, which caters to North America at an introductory price of $599.
Both phones feature 5G connectivity, a 6.6-inch display, and a 5,000 mAh battery that Bullitt says can last up to two full days.
With the Bullitt phones, the message is transmitted to geostationary satellites approximately 22,000 miles above the equator and then sent back to the terrestrial network infrastructure before reaching the user’s device.
The user receives a message in the form of a standard SMS. To respond, they must have Bullitt Messenger, the firm’s proprietary satellite messaging app, installed.
Text messages take about 10 seconds, as opposed to the near-instant speed of cell phones. The satellite connection is activated only when the user is out of range of Wi-Fi or mobile network signals.
News of the new Bullitt phones comes shortly after Apple announced the release of its iPhone 14, which has a feature to communicate with emergency services via satellite. The feature is available in the US, UK, France, Germany and Ireland.
Device makers like Apple and chip firms like Qualcomm are betting on an untapped opportunity to put satellite phones in the hands of people in remote areas beyond the reach of terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure.
Connecting to satellites allows messages to reach large areas of land that are not captured by terrestrial cellular equipment. Cell towers have a more limited range, meaning if you move too far away from one, you’ll lose signal.
This can come in handy if you’re a hiker lost on a mountain trail in a remote location, or a worker on a remote construction site who needs to contact your boss but can’t access mobile data.
Satellite phones have been in development for decades, but have yet to enter mainstream use. Bullitt hopes to change that with its hardware. Many satellite phones are clunky rectangular objects with large visible antennas. But the Bullitt phones look like regular smartphones, thanks in part to a satellite chip from Taiwanese semiconductor company MediaTek.
“It’s definitely not a gimmick,” Tim Shepherd, Bullitt’s senior director of applications and product marketing, told CNBC.
“Reliable connectivity outside of the traditional cellular network is a major challenge for many people, and satellite technology is now at an appropriate level of maturity to address this challenge.”
Bullitt says its phones go a step further than Apple’s phones by allowing two-way text messaging, as well as an emergency SOS feature the company developed in partnership with event management company Focuspoint International.
Bullitt’s two-way messaging service is priced at €4.99 for a basic plan with 30 messages per month, €9.99 for 125 messages per month and €29.99 for 400 messages per month.
In comparison, rival firm Garmin charges £19 for 10 texts a month, £32 for 60 texts a month and £58 for 250 texts a month, on top of a one-off £35 activation fee.
Apple’s Emergency SOS feature, which prevents two-way messaging, is free for two years after iPhone 14 or iPhone 14 Pro activation.
The iPhone manufacturer does not disclose prices for the service after the end of this period.
Bullitt is also launching a Bluetooth accessory, the Motorola Defy Satellite Link, which allows any Android or iOS device to connect to the Bullitt Satellite Messenger app, effectively allowing any phone to become a satellite phone. The puck-shaped device, which retails for $99, will be available in the second quarter.
Ben Wood, lead analyst at CCS Insight, said Bullitt was targeting a niche market and that its solution was better suited to landlocked countries such as the US and Australia.
“The company is a pioneer in satellite messaging, but the competition is following,” Wood told CNBC. “However, the target market for its devices is well-suited to the technology, so it has a profitable niche.”
Bullitt will support satellite coverage in Europe and North America at launch, with Australia and New Zealand, Africa and Latin America by mid-2023.
The company was previously responsible for what it called the world’s first thermal imaging smartphone, the Cat S60, in 2016. At the time, the firm said it expected the feature to be in 50% of smartphones in five years, a prediction that didn’t come to fruition.