Bullitt launches satellite smartphones as mobile space race heats up

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British smartphone firm Bullitt on Friday launched a new phone capable of sending text messages via space, joining a crowded race to commercialize satellite-enabled devices.

The phone, which fits into the “rugged” category of durable handsets, comes in two versions: the Caterpillar-branded Cat S75, which is aimed at the European market and will retail for 599 euros ($634.49), and the Motorola Defy 2, which caters to North America at a $599 starting price.

Both phones come with 5G connectivity, a 6.6-inch display and 5,000 milliampere-hour battery, which Bullitt says can last up to two full days.

With Bullitt’s phones, a message is beamed to geostationary satellites about 22,000 miles above the equator, then sent back down to earth-based network infrastructure before reaching a user’s device.

The user receives the message as a standard SMS. They will have to have Bullitt Messenger — the firm’s proprietary satellite messaging app — installed in order to reply. 

Texts take around 10 seconds to go through, as opposed to the near-instant speed of cell phones. Satellite connection is only turned on when a user falls outside the reach of Wi-Fi or mobile network signals.

News of Bullitt’s new phones comes not long after Apple announced the launch of its iPhone 14, which has a feature for contacting emergency services via satellite. The feature is available in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Ireland.

Device makers like Apple and chip firms like Qualcomm are betting on the untapped opportunity of putting satellite phones in the hands of people in remote areas that fall outside the reach of terrestrial telecoms infrastructure.

Connecting to satellites allows messages to reach broad swathes of land not captured by earth-based cellular equipment. Cell towers are more limited in range, meaning if you stray too far from one, you’ll lose signal.

It could come in handy, if you’re a hiker who’s gotten lost on a mountain trail in a far-flung place, or a worker on a remote building site who needs to contact their boss, but can’t access mobile data.

Satellite phones have been in the works for decades, but have not yet entered mainstream usage. Bullitt is hoping to change this with its gear. Many satellite phones are clunky rectangular objects with large, visible antennae. But Bullitt’s phones look like regular smartphones, thanks in part to a satellite-enabled chip from Taiwanese semiconductor firm MediaTek.

“This is assuredly not a gimmick,” Tim Shepherd, Bullitt’s senior director of applications and product marketing, told CNBC.

“Reliable communication beyond the traditional reaches of the cellular network is a major issue for a lot of people, and satellite technology is now at the right level of maturity to address the problem.”

Bullitt says that its phones go a step further than those of Apple, enabling two-way SMS messages, as well as an emergency SOS feature which the company has developed in partnership with critical event management firm Focuspoint International.

Rates for Bullitt’s two-way messaging service are set at 4.99 euros for a basic plan with 30 messages a month, 9.99 euros for 125 messages a month, and 29.99 euros 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 monthly texts, on top of a £35 one-time activation fee.

Apple’s Emergency SOS feature, which does not enable two-way messaging, is free for two years after the activation of an iPhone 14 or iPhone 14 Pro.

The iPhone maker hasn’t disclosed pricing for the service, once that period ends.

Bullitt is also launching a Bluetooth accessory, the Motorola Defy Satellite Link, that lets any Android or iOS device connect to its Bullitt Satellite Messenger app, effectively enabling any phone to become a satellite phone. The puck-shaped device, which retails at $99, will be available in the second quarter.

Ben Wood, lead analyst at CCS Insight, said that Bullitt was targeting a niche market, and that its solution was better suited to countries with large land masses, like the U.S. and Australia.

“The company is a trailblazer for satellite messaging but competition is snapping at its heels,” Wood told CNBC. “That said, the target market for its devices is well suited to the technology so it has a lucrative niche to target.”

Bullitt will support satellite coverage in Europe and North America at launch, with Australia and New Zealand, Africa and Latin America to follow 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 believed the feature would be in 50% of smartphones in five years, a prediction that did not come to fruition.

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