British smartphone company Bullitt on Friday launched a new phone that can send text messages via space, joining a crowded race to commercialize satellite-enabled devices.
The phone, which fits into the “tough” category of durable phones, comes in two versions: the Caterpillar-branded Cat S75, which targets the European market and will sell for 599 euros ($634.49), and the Motorola Defy 2 , which is headed to North America at a starting price of $599.
Both phones come with 5G connectivity, a 6.6-inch display and 5,000 mAh battery, which Bullitt says can last up to two full days.
With Bullitt’s phones, a message is sent 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 must have Bullitt Messenger – the company’s proprietary satellite messaging app – installed in order to respond.
Texts take about 10 seconds to go through, unlike the almost instant speed of cell phones. Satellite connection is only turned on when a user falls out of range of Wi-Fi or mobile network signals.
The news of Bullitt’s new phones comes not long after Apple announced the launch of its iPhone 14, which has a feature to contact emergency services via satellite. The feature is available in the US, UK, France, Germany and Ireland.
Device makers like Apple and chip companies like Qualcomm are betting on the untapped opportunity to put satellite phones in the hands of people in remote areas that fall beyond the reach of terrestrial telecom infrastructure.
By connecting to satellites, messages can reach wide areas that are not picked up by terrestrial cellular equipment. Cell towers have more limited range, meaning that if you stray too far from one, you will lose signal.
It can come in handy if you’re a hiker who’s lost on a mountain trail in a remote location, or a worker on a remote construction site who needs to contact his boss, but can’t access mobile data.
Satellite phones have been around for decades, but have yet to enter mainstream use. Bullitt hopes to change this with its equipment. Many satellite phones are bulky rectangular objects with large, visible antennas. But Bullitt’s phones look like regular smartphones, thanks in part to a satellite-enabled chip from Taiwanese semiconductor company MediaTek.
“This is definitely not a gimmick,” Tim Shepherd, Bullitt’s senior director of applications and product marketing, told CNBC.
“Reliable communication outside the traditional range of the mobile network is a big issue for many people, and satellite technology is now at the right level to solve the problem.”
Bullitt says its phones go a step further than Apple’s, enabling two-way SMS messaging, as well as an emergency SOS feature the company developed in collaboration with critical incident management company Focuspoint International.
Prices for Bullitt’s two-way messaging service are set at €4.99 for a basic plan of 30 messages per month, €9.99 for 125 messages per month and €29.99 for 400 messages per month.
In comparison, rival company 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-off 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 has not revealed the price of the service when that period ends.
Bullitt is also launching a Bluetooth accessory, the Motorola Defy Satellite Link, which allows any Android or iOS device to connect to its Bullitt Satellite Messenger app, effectively turning any phone into a satellite phone. The puck-shaped device, which retails for $99, will be available in the second quarter.
Ben Wood, senior analyst at CCS Insight, said Bullitt was targeting a niche market and its solution was better suited to countries with large land masses, such as the US and Australia.
“The company is a pioneer in satellite messaging, but the competition is hot on its heels,” Wood told CNBC. “That said, the target market for its devices is well suited for 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 in 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 company said it believed the feature would be in 50% of smartphones in five years, a prediction it didn’t make. come about.