The race to offer direct satellite-to-phone communication services is hotting up, and one player has a new product that could help it steal a march on its larger rivals.

Cat – of giant bulldozer fame – also offers a range of rugged devices, including smartphones. Developed by UK white label OEM Bullitt Group, they are designed to withstand all kinds of punishment, including submersion in several metres of water, extremes of temperature and pressure, exposure to copious volumes of dirt, and yes, even being dropped from height onto hard surfaces.

Its latest model, which will be shown off at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona next week, does all that too, but it’s also taking aim at an altogether more final frontier. Called the Cat S75, it incorporates chip maker MediaTek’s 3GPP non-terrestrial network (NTN) chipset, which enables two-way, direct connectivity to geostationary satellites. Bullit says that when it goes on sale, it will be the first commercially-available smartphone to do such a thing.

It’s true that Apple’s iPhone 14 supports satellite connectivity, but for one-way, emergency satellite communication. And Samsung on Thursday announced it will incorporate 5G NTN connectivity into its Exynos line of modems, although it hasn’t said exactly when it will feature in its smartphones.

Meanwhile, there are multiple companies out there that also promise to offer direct satellite-to-phone connectivity for unmodified, commercially available smartphones. Lynk is one of them, and AST SpaceMobile is another. However, connectivity is provided by low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, and these constellations are still in the early phases of deployment, so they’re not yet large enough to offer consistent coverage.

“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,” said Bullitt co-founder Richard Wharton, in a statement.

However, before anyone starts daydreaming about sending “lost at sea, LOL” to their friends from the middle of the open ocean, there is the small matter of the service plan to consider.

Customers need to have signed up to Bullitt Satellite Messenger, which starts at £4.99 per month. Once subscribed, they can message anyone in their contacts – irrespective of whether their handset is NTN compatible – who will receive it as an SMS. To respond, they must install the free-to-use Bullitt Satellite Messenger app, available from both the App Store and Play Store.

“Satellite technology for any smartphone is the next big step in mobile connectivity, and what MediaTek has delivered with its standalone, standards-based satellite communications chip. We successfully worked with Bullitt, integrating our 3GPP NTN technology and chipset into the world’s first commercially available devices with two-way satellite messaging,” said JC Hsu, corporate VP and general manager of MediaTek’s wireless communications business unit. “It’s a significant advancement for remote users and emergency services, but this technology also paves the way for other unique smartphone satellite communication and connectivity markets.”

The Cat S75 is available to pre-order from select operators and retailers across EMEA, and costs €599 (£549). It comes with a three-month free trial of Bullitt Satellite Messenger.

For anyone who likes the idea of direct satellite-to-phone services, but doesn’t want to switch from their current device, Bullitt has an alternative option.

In a separate announcement on Friday, it said its satellite messaging service has been incorporated into a new rugged Bluetooth device from Motorola Mobility. Called the defy satellite link, it resembles a mobile broadband hotspot, only it enables any iOS or Android device to connect to Bullitt Satellite Messenger – provided they’ve subscribed, of course. The idea is that people can take one with them as an emergency comms device when they’re exploring the great outdoors, and it includes physical SOS and location check-in buttons for when the circumstances call for them.

At £99 for the device, or £149 for the device and a 12 month service plan, it is cheaper than the Cat S75. It is due to go sale in Q2.

Being realistic, the Cat S75 is unlikely to keep execs at Apple and Samsung awake at night. It will find a niche, particularly among professionals who require a rugged device, but it is unlikely to be a mainstream hit. All that said, the S75’s incorporation of two-way satellite connectivity and accompanying subscription service – and the launch of devices like the defy satellite link – are interesting examples of the general direction of travel in the smartphone market.

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