British smartphone company Bullitt on Friday launched a new phone capable of sending text messages across space, joining a crowded race to commercialize satellite-enabled devices.
The phone, which fits into the “rugged” category of durable phones, comes in two versions: the Caterpillar-branded Cat S75, which is intended for the European market and will retail for 599 euros ($634.49). , and the Motorola Defy 2, which is offering to North America at a starting price of $599.
Both phones come with 5G connectivity, a 6.6-inch display, and a 5,000 mAh battery that Bullitt says can last up to two full days.
With Bullitt’s phones, a message is beamed to geostationary satellites approximately 22,000 miles above the equator and then sent back to the ground-based network infrastructure before reaching a user’s device.
The user receives the message as a standard SMS. You must have Bullitt Messenger – the company’s satellite messaging app – installed in order to reply.
Texts take around 10 seconds to go through, as opposed to the near-instantaneous speed of cell phones. The satellite connection is activated only when a user is out of range of Wi-Fi or cellular 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 US, UK, France, Germany and Ireland.
Device makers like Apple and chip companies like Qualcomm are capitalizing on the untapped opportunity to put satellite phones in the hands of people in remote areas that are beyond the reach of terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure.
Linked to satellites, messages can reach vast swathes of land that are not covered by terrestrial cellphones. Cell towers have a more limited range, meaning you’ll lose signal if you stray too far from one.
It could come in handy if you’re a hiker who got lost on a mountain trail in a remote location, or a worker at a remote construction site who needs to contact his boss but doesn’t have access to mobile data.
Satellite phones have been in the works for decades but have not yet reached mainstream use. Bullitt hopes to change that with his gear. 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 certainly not a gimmick,” Tim Shepherd, Bullitt’s senior director of applications and product marketing, told CNBC.
“Reliable communication beyond the traditional ranges of the cellular network is an important issue for many people, and satellite technology is now at the right level of maturity to address the problem.”
Bullitt says its phones go a step further than Apple’s by enabling two-way SMS messaging as well as an emergency call SOS feature, which the company developed in partnership with Focuspoint International, a critical events management company.
Bullitt’s two-way messaging service plans are $4.99 for a basic 30 messages per month plan, $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 doesn’t allow two-way messaging, is free for two years after an iPhone 14 or iPhone 14 Pro is activated.
The iPhone maker has not disclosed pricing for the service after this 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 making any phone a satellite phone. The puck-shaped device, which retails for $99, will be available in Q2.
Ben Wood, senior analyst at CCS Insight, said Bullitt is targeting a niche market and that its solution is better suited to countries with large landmasses like the US and Australia.
“The company is a pioneer in satellite news, but the competition is snapping at its heels,” Wood told CNBC. “Nevertheless, the target market for its devices is well suited to the technology, so there is a lucrative niche to explore.”
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 the so-called Cat S60, the world’s first thermal imaging smartphone, in 2016. At the time, the company said it believed the feature would be in 50% of smartphones five years from now, a prediction that didn’t come to fruition.