Bullitt reveals MediaTek as chip partner for satellite/mobile phone

The race is on to deliver a modern-day satellite/cellular smartphone, and Bullitt Group thinks it’s ahead of the pack.

The British smartphone company today announced that it’s partnering with MediaTek in a deal that will see Bullitt as the first to use MediaTek’s 3GPP NTN (Non-Terrestrial Network) chipset.

The 3GPP first included NTN in Release 17, so it’s all relatively new to the industry at large.

According to MediaTek, the 3GPP NTN standard combines cellular and satellite connectivity in the same device, allowing device manufacturers access to satellite connectivity. Bullitt describes its device as one that uses OTT satellite service to provide a messaging service, with a free SOS feature.

“We are very proud of having created the two-way satellite messaging technology used in this first commercially available phone and for being the pioneers in creating the ecosystem based on 3GPP NTN standards for satellite communication,” said JC Hsu, corporate vice president and general manager of the Wireless Communications Business Unit at MediaTek, in a statement.

Bullitt, which has been providing rugged handsets for more than 10 years, expects to introduce its first satellite-to-mobile messaging smartphone in the first quarter of 2023. The plan is to launch the Bullitt device in North America and Europe first, with the rest of the world following shortly after that.

Cat’s out of the bag

Bullitt and its satellite phone plans flew mostly under the radar until the BBC in September reported that the company hopes to steal thunder from separate endeavors by Apple and Elon Musk. The company at that time confirmed that it was working with a leading chip manufacturer but didn’t reveal its identity.

Bullitt’s satellite-connected service initially will enable users to send and receive text messages only, but it’s two-way, so it’s more useful than Apple’s service with Globalstar, executives said. It’s also going to use existing satellites, rather than the up-and-coming ones that Musk plans for his undertaking with T-Mobile.

Still, many details of Bullitt’s launch remain under wraps. No specific satellite constellations are identified. It’s not talking about pricing but says it wants to bring satellite connectivity to a broad audience and that price won’t be a barrier.

According to Bullitt, its device software is intelligent and switches to the satellite link only when no cellular or Wi-Fi connection is available. The time to initially connect to the satellite and send a message is around 10 seconds, the company said.

Before it introduces the device in the U.S., the company will need to submit it to the FCC for certification. It also presumably will need to put its device through the paces with a U.S. carrier, which, if history is any indication, can take some time.

But they’re hopeful.

Getting carriers onboard

Bullitt Group co-founder Richard Wharton told Fierce in a recent interview that both U.S. and Canadian carriers recognize they can’t cover 100% of the land mass. “The carriers get this,” he said, reiterating that Bullitt expects to launch with North American carriers in 2023. They haven’t named anyone specifically for that, either.

Bullitt designs and manufactures mobile phones under brand licenses from Cat (Caterpillar Inc.) and Motorola. Its consumer base includes construction, emergency services and other professionals whose work occurs primarily outdoors, so it’s not a big stretch to see them branching into the satellite phone space.

Wharton said they have a deep understanding of the people who use phones on the fringe of coverage and they’ve always had an eye on the satellite space. A couple years ago, they set out to develop the solution, and now they’re in a position, having completed much of the heavy lifting, where they think they’re significantly ahead of competing endeavors.

“We feel there’s absolutely a need for mission critical users, for business critical users, to drive efficiencies, to save lives,” he said. In fact, he said there’s a massive consumer market that includes skiers, hikers, mountain bikers, anglers, survivalists and more who need a reliable signal in the middle of nowhere.

Plans call for a big reveal at CES in January, so more details should be known relatively soon.