Bullitt launches satellite smartphones as the mobile space race heats up

British smartphone company Bullitt has launched a phone capable of sending messages via satellite.

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British smartphone company Bullitt on Friday launched a new phone capable of sending text messages through space, joining a busy race to market satellite-enabled devices.

The phone, which falls into the rugged category, comes in two versions: the Caterpillar-branded Cat S75, which is targeted at the European market and will retail for €599 ($634.49), and the Motorola Defy 2, which caters to North America starting at $599.

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

Using Bullitt phones, a message is sent to a geostationary satellite 22,000 miles above the equator, and then sent back to the terrestrial network infrastructure before reaching the user’s device.

The user receives the message as a standard SMS. They’ll have to install Bullitt Messenger — the company’s satellite messaging app — to respond.

Texts take about 10 seconds to go through, rather than the near-instant speed of mobile phones. Satellite calling only turns on when the user is outside the range of Wi-Fi or mobile network signals.

The news of the new Bullitt phones comes shortly after Apple announced the launch of its iPhone 14, which has the feature of calling 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 beyond the reach of terrestrial communications infrastructure.

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Satellite communication allows messages to reach large swathes of Earth not captured by terrestrial cellular equipment. Cell towers are more range-limited, which means if you stray too far from one, you’ll lose signal.

It can come in handy, if you’re a hiker who’s lost on a mountain pass 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 they have not yet entered mainstream use. Bullitt hopes to change this with his equipment. Many satellite phones are rectangular objects with large, visible antennas. But the Bullitt phones look just like regular smartphones, thanks in part to a satellite-enabled chip from Taiwanese semiconductor maker MediaTek.

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

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

Beyond Apple’s phones, Bullitt says its phones enable two-way SMS messaging, as well as an emergency SOS feature that the company developed in partnership with critical event management company Focuspoint International.

Prices for Bullitt’s two-way messaging service are set at €4.99 for the basic plan with 30 messages per month, €9.99 for 125 messages per month, and €29.99 for 400 messages per month.

By comparison, rival Garmin charges £19 for 10 text messages per month, £32 for 60 text messages per month, and £58 for 250 text messages per month, plus a one-off £35 activation fee.

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Apple’s Emergency SOS feature, which doesn’t enable two-way messaging, is free for two years after you activate your iPhone 14 or iPhone 14 Pro.

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

Bullitt is also releasing a Bluetooth accessory, the Motorola Defy Satellite Link, that allows any Android or iOS device to connect to its Bullitt Satellite Messenger app, effectively enabling any phone to become a satellite phone. The tablet-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 that its solution was better suited to countries with large territories, such as the United States and Australia.

“The company is a pioneer in satellite messaging, but competition is blowing up in its wake,” Wood told CNBC. “However, the target market for its devices is well-suited to the technology, so it has a profitable niche to target.”

Bullitt will support satellite coverage in Europe and North America at launch, with Australia, 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 company said it believed the feature would be in 50% of smartphones within five years, a prediction that did not come to fruition. .

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