UK firm to release GEO-compatible smartphone early next year

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TAMPA, Fla. — British handset maker Bullitt said Nov. 29 it will release a smartphone early next year capable of sending and receiving texts via satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO).

The company has been working with chipmaker MediaTek for 18 months to develop the hybrid smartphone, which they say can connect directly to a satellite when terrestrial networks are unavailable without needing an external antenna.

The smartphone’s exact dimensions will be announced during the CES annual trade show in January, Bullitt co-founder Richard Wharton told SpaceNews.

Wharton said its solution is “constellation agnostic” and will use satellites from multiple operators that he declined to name.

Bullitt, which designs and builds ruggedized mobile phones under brand licenses from Motorola and heavy-duty vehicle specialist Caterpillar, expects to launch initial satellite coverage across North America and Europe in the first quarter of 2023, “with the rest of world following very shortly after.”

The smartphone will run on Google’s Android operating system and will also include a satellite-enabled emergency SOS service for free, similar to the capability Apple launched Nov. 15 via Globalstar’s satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).

Unlike Apple’s service for its latest iPhones, which only facilitates two-way texting with emergency services, Wharton said Bullitt users will be able to text back and forth with any other mobile phone over a satellite network.

He said Bullitt successfully tested this capability with MediaTek’s chip in October. More system and service tests are currently underway in North America and Europe ahead of commercial launch.

According to Bullitt, the time to initially connect to a GEO satellite and send a message will be around 10 seconds.

Under ideal conditions, Apple has said current Globalstar bandwidth constraints mean a message sent via its satellite could take 15 seconds to send, and as long as three minutes in other cases.

Californian startup eSAT Global is also developing a chip enabling smartphones to connect directly GEO satellites. 

The company has partnered to use unused capacity on Yahsat and Inmarsat satellites as it tries to convince smartphone makers to modify their chipsets to tap into the network.

Other companies are developing similar businesses in LEO using either proprietary chip technology or bespoke constellations that can connect to unmodified smartphones.

With enough satellites, LEO constellations promise lower latency than satellites farther away from the Earth in GEO, which is seen as an important advantage for higher bandwidth capabilities, including voice and video calls.