TAMPA, Fla. — British ruggedized handset maker Bullitt unveiled its first satellite-enabled smartphones Feb. 24 that can send and receive text messages outside cellular coverage.

The company’s Caterpillar-branded Cat S75 model geared for markets in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa is available for pre-order at prices starting at 599 euros ($634).

Prices for Motorola Defy 2, which Bullitt said would be available from certain operators across North America, Latin America, and Canada from April, start at $599.

Both Android phones feature a 6.6-inch display and the ability to connect to geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites in addition to terrestrial 5G networks without needing an external antenna, thanks to hardware from Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek.

The smartphones are designed to seek a GEO link if they fail to connect via cellular or Wi-Fi networks. 

Recipients of texts sent via space would need to have installed Bullitt’s proprietary satellite messaging app — available for Android and iPhone users — to reply. 

The service is facilitated by Silicon Valley startup Skylo and its partnerships with GEO operators, including Inmarsat, to use their satellites for a separate business specializing in connecting remote Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Tim Shepherd, Bullitt’s senior director for applications and product marketing, said these satellite services will be available for its customers in Europe and North America by the end of March.

Availability in Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, and Africa is slated to follow by mid-2023.

Satellite-enabled messages would initially be limited to 140 bytes in size, Shepherd told SpaceNews, equating to 140 characters in most languages.

He said users could share their location, but gifs, images, and voice services would require more bandwidth.

“Getting from reliable two-way text-based messaging over satellite to freer voice and data use, is mainly a question of bandwidth availability,” he said via email.

“As new satellites are launched, and importantly standards evolve to include higher data throughput over a satellite connection … Bullitt, and likely other services, will be able to adapt our platform components to enable the provision of voice and heavier data-consuming services to users.”

The small print

Sending or receiving messages via satellites requires a subscription that costs $4.99 per month for Motorola Defy 2 and €4.99 per month for Cat S75.

Bullitt said the subscription would come with a free trial of an SOS service that uses emergency response centers run by FocusPoint International — similar to the satellite-enabled emergency services Apple currently offers for free with its latest iPhone.

Apple’s satellite services are limited to SOS and use Globalstar’s satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), which are closer to Earth than GEO satellites and unlike them 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 transmitting a message that can take about 15 seconds to send.

With a clear view of the sky, Shepherd said it typically takes 20 seconds for one of its smartphones to make an initial GEO connection.

”Messages sent over Bullitt Satellite Messenger typically take around 30 seconds to send, from a satellite connected phone to a device with an IP connection,” he added.

“This includes an in-built 5-second wait in which the app waits to see if the user will send another message in quick succession that can be sent within the same packet, with the intent to save the user money through efficient use of their messaging data allowance.”

Bullitt is part of a surge of companies seeking to forge a place in the fledgling direct-to-device market, including Samsung Electronics, which announced an upgraded chip today to enable its smartphones to connect with satellites.

Some ventures, including Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile, are developing constellations from scratch to enter the market, while others such as Iridium Communications seek to leverage their existing satellite networks.

Iridium has partnered with U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm to enable its satellites to connect with Android smartphones and other devices, with initial products slated for release in the second half of 2023.

Bullitt also plans to launch a “pocket-friendly” Bluetooth dongle via international retailers in the second quarter of 2022 called the Motorola Defy Satellite Link to enable any Android phone or iPhone to connect to its satellite messaging services. The company said the cost for just the device in the United States would start at $99.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...