Last week, on a cloudy day in Barcelona, I walked out of one of the big conference rooms at the Mobile World Congress, pointed my phone at the sky, and watched a message being sent via satellite, without the need for a mobile network. You only need a fee and a cheap Bluetooth device. But will it last so long? Context is always important.
You might have a good SIM rate with unlimited calls, texts, and data, but if you don’t have coverage, it doesn’t matter.
Many tech companies are trying to figure out how to add satellite communications to smartphones because we can’t send or receive messages or calls in places where there is no coverage.
You might need help but have no cell phone service. In this case, you’d like your phone to be able to use satellite messaging. It’s almost never built into a phone.
Apple’s iPhone 14 phones now have an SOS emergency messaging feature, but it’s only available in a few countries and Apple hasn’t said how much it will cost (it’s free for the first two years).
Qualcomm, an American company that provides chipsets to many Android manufacturers, is also promoting Snapdragon Satellite, a technology that its customers will be able to add to their high-end smartphones in the future.
But while Apple’s Satellite SOS Emergency feature lets you send messages to emergency services, these services aren’t made for the text messages we send through SMS, WhatsApp, iMessage, Telegram, or any other messaging app.
You might think that a small British company wouldn’t be able to make satellite messaging popular if these big companies haven’t been able to do it yet. the opposite is true.
Bullitt Group, which is based in Reading, England, offers a global satellite messaging service that lets you send and receive messages from and to anyone with a mobile number anywhere in the world. This service is now available to both consumers and businesses in Europe and North America. It’s made for emergencies, but you could technically use it for anything.
Bullitt has had a license to make phones for about 15 years. They make the phones, but sell them alongside well-known brands like Motorola to make them more appealing to buyers.
Phil Wicks, who is in charge of satellite marketing for Bullitt Group, was with me under a cloudy sky. He was carrying the new CAT S75, an Android phone that costs $599 and has satellite connectivity built in.
Phil was able to send several messages without using a cellular network by paying a fee and using Bullitt’s messaging app. I saw these messages being sent and answered live.
Wicks says that until now, satellite communications were done with big, expensive equipment that wasn’t made for consumers.
Wicks said, “There’s no reason for it to be as expensive as it has been so far.” “We show that it can be inexpensive.”
With the S75, you can send live messages or locations to emergency contacts. If you can’t write a message, you can also use a multiple-choice triage service with emergency services around the world.
If you don’t want a big, bulky CAT phone, you’ll soon be able to buy the €119 Motorola Defy Satellite Link, which is a Bluetooth device that adds satellite communications to any Android phone or iPhone.
It has the MT6825 chipset from MediaTek, which is one of Qualcomm’s main competitors in the market. We think that the Defy is one of the best new things at MWC 2023 because it is affordable and can give you peace of mind (or your backpack).
“We’re trying to make it much easier to use, but we also want to make sure that the fees are reasonable… It’s about making satellite accessible to everyone,” Wicks said.
Using two groups of geostationary satellites from the companies Inmarsat and EchoStar, the Bullitt app lets you send messages.
Geostationary satellites go around the Earth at the same speed as the Earth, so they always stay in the same place in the sky. They are 22,300 miles above the equator and 22,300 miles from Earth.
The person who sends the message has to pay the Bullitt rate, but the person who receives it doesn’t have to. For $4.99 a month, you can buy a plan with 30 messages.
This means that for €169, you could get the Defy dongle and a plan that lets you send and receive 30 messages per month for a year.
Bullitt Satellite Connect is already available in Europe and North America, but Wicks says it will be available in Latin America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand by the end of 2023, and “everywhere else” after that.
“Technically, there’s no reason why we can’t cover the whole world, but there are some geopolitical reasons why we can’t. Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, and Russia don’t like it when other countries use satellites without telling them,” he said.
Even though the service is just text messaging, the plans are still pretty cheap. Obviously, it’s not as cheap as sending a message with a normal SIM rate, but don’t forget that you’re skipping the whole mobile phone network and using very new technology that consumers don’t have access to.
Also, how much can you put a price on your safety if you go on an adventure to a place where you probably won’t have cell phone service?
“We use the narrowband IoT channel, which only sends small amounts of data. So it’s about trying to keep costs low and use what’s already there,” he said.
Bullitt’s main customers are businesses like vehicle recovery companies, security companies, agricultural buyers, emergency services, first responders, and people in areas without power.
But because the Motorola Defy is cheap and easy to find, you can buy an emergency satellite device in a store that sells mountain gear or even at the grocery store.
Tech giants might make us think that satellite messaging is rare or expensive, but that could be because they don’t want to tell mobile carriers that we might not need mobile networks in the future.
It’s important that manufacturers and operators have these kinds of relationships. Bullitt doesn’t have to worry about that, it turns out.
Wicks says that some operators are afraid, but the biggest ones are already putting money into the technology. Your business is ahead of the curve.
“We’re a pretty small company, but we’ve figured it out pretty quickly because we’re a bit more dynamic and flexible. “It takes time for big companies to figure it out,” he said.