Rugged smartphones designed for mission-critical (e.g. emergency workers and first responders), business-critical (e.g. transport, logistics), and outdoor hobbyist (e.g. hiking, skiing) use cases are widely available, but lack a key ingredient: if no cellular or Wi-Fi connection is available -- and there are large areas, even in developed countries, where that's the case -- they have no means of communicating. There are dedicated satellite phones, of course, but these can be expensive, bulky, and lacking in smartphone features.
Fresh from unveiling its Bullitt Satellite Connect (BSC) service and Bullitt Satellite Messenger (BSM) OTT app at CES 2023, British company Bullitt Group has announced the fully rugged Cat S75 smartphone, a flagship 5G handset with added satellite comms capability, courtesy of BSC and BSM, at Mobile World Congress (MWC). In the US and Latin America, essentially the same Bullitt-designed and manufactured phone will be sold as the Motorola Defy 2.
The 6.6-inch Cat S75 looks more like a regular smartphone than most rugged or satellite handsets because Bullitt, in conjunction with its chipset partner MediaTek, has shrunk the satellite RF components to a manageable size as well as tweaking power consumption to eke out maximum battery life.
There's no compromise on rugged features, though, with the S75 able to handle all manner of abuse. It can cope with drops onto steel from up to 1.8m, immersion in up to 5m of water for over 35 minutes and high-pressure water jets, as well as exposure to dust, dirt, and sand (IP68/IP69K). It has also been tested under vibration, humidity, and extremes of temperature (MIL-STD-810H), and has antimicrobial materials on external surfaces that can be washed and sanitised.
Clearly the S75 is a phone you can take almost anywhere -- and with Bullitt Satellite Connect support on-board, you can have the peace of mind that comes with the availability of two-way messaging and location tracking, plus an SOS service, when you have neither cellular nor Wi-Fi connectivity.
Here are the Cat S75's key features:
171 x 80 x 11.9mm
1.8m drop onto steel • IP68/IP69K • MIL-STD-810H • Corning Gorilla Glass Victus • Hygeine+ antibacterial technology
6.6-inch FHD+ (1080 x 2408, 20:9, 400ppi), 120Hz refresh; touch screen usable with wet/gloved fingers
Android 12 (upgrades to 13 & 14), Android Enterprise Recommended (5 years security patch cover)
The Cat S75 is based on MediaTek's mid-range octa-core Dimensity 930 chipset with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage, expandable via MicroSD card. The Dimensity 930's CPU comprises two Arm Cortex A78 cores and six Cortex A55 cores, while the GPU is an IMG BXM-8-256. The other key MediaTek ingredient is a 3GPP NTN-standard modem and its associated antennas, which enable the satellite connection.
How does Bullitt Satellite Connect work, and what does it cost?
Bullitt Satellite Connect makes use of GEO (geostationary) satellites operated by Inmarsat and EchoStar, and managed by Bullitt's satellite network service partner Skylo. A text message (up to 140 characters) with location information from a BSC-compatible phone such as the Cat S75 travels some 22,300 miles to the nearest GEO satellite and is relayed back to a Skylo ground station, whence it travels via a cellular or Wi-Fi internet connection to its recipient, which can be any regular iOS (14 or later) or Android (10 or later) smartphone with the Bullitt Satellite Messenger (BSM) app installed -- which you are prompted to download on receiving your first satellite message as an SMS. Replies via BSM take the opposite route (Wi-Fi or cellular to ground station, to satellite, to satellite phone).
Messaging plans start at £4.99 a month for up to 30 satellite messages a month, rising through £9.99/month for up to 125 messages a month, and onto £29.99/month for up to 400 messages a month. You can also pay £59.99 a year for up to 250 messages a year.
Also available on BSC is SOS assistance, courtesy of FocusPoint International, which manages 24/7 monitored response centers that handle emergency messages and assistance requests, escalating to emergency services as required. You get unlimited SOS messages with all subscriptions, and a free 12-month trial. There's also a physical SOS button on the Cat S75 handset, but no automatic Apple-style alerting of emergency services.
Bullitt Satellite Connect will go live on 27 February in Europe and North America, rolling out in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and Latin America in mid-2023, and other regions before the end of the year.
Other Cat S75 features
The Cat S75's camera system cannot compare with the photo and video capabilities of premium handsets, such as Samsung's Galaxy S23 series, but you do get three rear cameras -- 50MP wide angle, 8MP ultra-wide angle/depth and 2MP macro – plus an 8MP selfie shooter. You can also use the S75 to take stills and video underwater, thanks to the handset's capable waterproofing.
The Cat S75 has a 5000mAh battery which, Bullitt says, will power the handset for 'two full days'. Both wired (15W) and wireless (Qi) charging are supported.
Like many manufacturers these days, Bullitt highlights its sustainability efforts, citing 100% plastic-free packaging and use of recycled materials for the Cat S75. Rugged phones tend to have long lifetimes, and this is further encouraged with support for Android upgrades to version 13 and 14 plus five years of security patches.
The Cat S75 is available for preorder now at €599 in Europe, or £549 in the UK, and will come with a free introductory three-month Essential plan (up to 30 satellite messages a month). The Motorola Defy 2 -- basically the same phone, with some RF configuration and software changes -- will serve North America and Latin America.
"For the last 10 years we have been setting the standards for rugged phones both in terms of reliability and innovation. I'm proud to say that, with the Cat S75, we are once again raising the bar. The S75 has all of the class leading rugged credentials you would expect from a Cat phone, combined with ultra-fast 5G and direct-to-satellite connectivity. The S75 offers a whole new level of resilience to mobile communications that other smartphones just can't match. This is the best Cat phone we have ever made." said Richard Wharton, co-founder Bullitt Group.
Are satellite phones going mainstream?
Apple's satellite-based Emergency SOS and location tracking service is now available on iPhone 14 models in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK, while Qualcomm announced its Snapdragon Satellite solution for two-way messaging at CES in January, with availability on premium Android phones expected in H2 2023.
Apple's and Qualcomm's services both use low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations -- Globalstar and Iridium respectively -- rather than the GEO satellites managed by Skylo. There are pros and cons of LEO versus GEO for messaging: LEO satellites fly lower (99-1,200 miles vs 22,000+ miles) but faster (17,000 mph vs 7,000mph) than GEO satellites, making for lower latencies but tricker signal acquisition from the ground. GEO satellites cannot cover polar regions but, being geostationary, are easier to locate.
Bullitt Group is up against some heavyweight competition in the nascent smartphone satellite services market. However, it does have a significant and disruptive first-mover advantage in the Android space, and may well punch well above its weight, at least for a while. Expect to hear a lot more about satellite connectivity on smartphones in 2023 and beyond.