TAMPA, Fla. — British rugged cellphone maker Bullitt on February 24 unveiled its first satellite-enabled smartphones that can send and receive text messages outside of cellular coverage.
The company’s Caterpillar-branded Cat S75 model, aimed at markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is available for pre-order with prices starting at 599 euros ($634).
Pricing for the Motorola Defy 2, which Bullitt says will be available starting April on select carriers in North America, Latin America and Canada, will start at $599.
Both Android phones have a 6.6-inch display and the ability to connect to satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO) in addition to terrestrial 5G networks, thanks to hardware from Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek, without the need for an external antenna.
The smartphones are designed to seek a GEO connection when they are unable to connect over cellular or Wi-Fi networks.
Recipients of texts sent over space would need to have Bullitt’s proprietary satellite messaging app — available for Android and iPhone users — installed in order to reply.
The service is enabled by Silicon Valley startup Skylo and its partnerships with GEO operators, including Inmarsat, to leverage their satellites for a separate business specializing in connecting remote Internet of Things (IoT) devices .
Tim Shepherd, Bullitt’s senior director of applications and product marketing, said these satellite services will be available to its customers in Europe and North America by the end of March.
Availability in Australia, New Zealand, Latin America and Africa is expected to follow by mid-2023.
Satellite-based messages would initially be limited to 140 bytes in size, Shepherd told SpaceNews, which is 140 characters in most languages.
He said users could share their location, but gifs, images and voice services would require more bandwidth.
“The transition from reliable two-way text-based messaging over satellite to freer voice and data usage is largely a matter of bandwidth availability,” he said via email.
“As new satellites are launched and key standards evolve to enable higher data throughput over a satellite link… Bullitt and likely other services will be able to adapt our platform components to enable the delivery of voice and more data-intensive services to users.” .”
The fine print
Sending or receiving messages via satellite requires a subscription, which costs $4.99 per month for the Motorola Defy 2 and €4.99 per month for the Cat S75.
Bullitt said the subscription would come with a free trial of an SOS service that uses emergency operators operated by FocusPoint International – similar to the satellite-based emergency services Apple is currently offering for free with its latest iPhone.
Apple’s satellite services are limited to SOS and use Globalstar’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, which are closer to Earth than GEO satellites and, unlike GEO, are constantly moving across the sky.
This means iPhone 14 users must first be guided with an app to lock onto a Globalstar satellite before sending a message, which can take around 15 seconds to transmit.
With a clear view of the sky, Shepherd says it typically takes 20 seconds for one of his smartphones to establish an initial GEO connection.
“Messages sent via the Bullitt Satellite Messenger typically take about 30 seconds to send from a satellite-connected phone to an IP-connected device,” he added.
“This includes a built-in 5-second wait time where the app will wait for the user to send another message in quick succession, which can be sent within the same packet, with the intention of saving the user money by using efficient messaging- Data volume.”
Bullitt is among a number of companies looking to carve out a spot in the fledgling direct-to-device market, including Samsung Electronics, which today announced an updated chip that will allow its smartphones to connect to satellites.
Some companies, including Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile, are designing constellations from scratch to get to market, while others like Iridium Communications are trying to leverage their existing satellite networks.
Iridium has partnered with US chipmaker Qualcomm to enable its satellites to connect to Android smartphones and other devices, with first products expected to launch in the second half of 2023.
Bullitt also plans to launch a “pocket-friendly” Bluetooth dongle called the Motorola Defy Satellite Link through international retailers in Q2 2022, allowing any Android phone or iPhone to connect to its satellite messaging services. The company said the cost for the device alone would start at $99 in the United States.