A transit system providing bus service to a largely rural territory covering seven counties in Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska expects to save about $30,000 per year after replacing its aging LMR system with a push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) solution—a communications trend that is gathering momentum throughout the enterprise sector.

Siouxland Regional Transit System (SRTS) bus drivers previously used 800 MHz trunked radios, but there were problems, according to Curt Miller, transit director for the Siouxland Regional Transit System (SRTS). The radios needed to be updated, there were coverage holes, and continuing to lease tower space on the RACOM system at about $2,500 per month was a burden on the transit agency’s budget, he said.

SRTS drivers already had Verizon data connectivity in their buses to support the dispatch solution, so Miller explored the possibility of leveraging this investment to address the transit agency’s voice needs.

“When I got here, I knew that our system was basically obsolete,” Miller said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We needed to replace all of the radios, so I started looking to see what alternatives there were. We’d already implemented dispatch software on tablet, so every driver has a cell phone and a tablet. I thought, ‘If I could make use of those tools without adding more cost, that would be the most efficient way.’ That’s what led me down the road to looking for a push-to-talk [PTT] app.”

After conducting a trial, Miller chose the Zello for Work push-to-talk application, which costs $6 per month. With about 60 drivers and dispatchers, SRTS pays about $360 per month for the PTT service, and the voice traffic has not been great enough to impact the costs associated with the Verizon data plan, Miller said.

“We selected Zello for a couple of reasons,” he said. “They allow me to program my drivers as a group, so I can talk to them individually, by county or by location. It also keeps a history of all the conversations, so—if I need to—I can go back and get the actual communications between the driver and dispatcher.”

But not all aspects of the transition went smoothly from the outset, Miller said.

“I actually did the push-to-talk thru Verizon on the cell phones to start with, but driving and using the cell phone is not good business,” Miller said. “So, we looked at the alternative, which was to put the app on the tablet and then find microphones that work with the tablet, so the driver could them basically like a radio without having to touch the tablet screen or the cell phone.”

SRTS initially had bus drivers try to use corded microphones, but there were numerous issues, Miller said. Because of the cord, drivers were unable to use the push-to-talk solution unless they were close to the driver’s seat, meaning they could not talk on the system if a passenger needed help outside the bus—for example, assisting an elderly or handicapped rider to board the vehicle. In addition, repeated tugging on the microphone cords resulted in the need to repair the jacks on the tablets or the jacks on microphones, he said.

With this in mind, Miller is in the process of transitioning drivers to Bluetooth microphones from Pryme Radio Products that can be attach to a lapel or visor. Since making the switch about six months ago to the Bluetooth microphones, “we’ve had very little problems or repairs with those.”