Fleet operators, especially taxi and livery services, are migrating to commercial push-to-talk, or P2T, services and away from traditional voice-only two-way radio dispatch services. Benefits include increased flexibility, less administrative overhead and more features. Surprisingly, there's little actual “talk,” but a lot more data flying on the airwaves.

P2T is big business for Sprint Nextel, with all cellular carriers currently lagging significantly behind. “Right now, it's about 20 million or so [P2T users], with the majority of customers on Nextel,” said Marina Amoroso, a Yankee Group analyst. “There's a couple hundred thousand across other wireless carriers.”

However, steady P2T growth is predicted in the years ahead as other cellular carriers, such as Verizon Wireless and Cingular, add the function to their networks and phones. “The whole push-to-talk concept involves handsets,” said Tuong Nguyen, a Gartner Group analyst. “So if you introduce more handsets [with P2T], it's definitely a value-add in terms of the network.”

An exact breakdown between commercial and personal P2T users isn't readily available because Sprint Nextel deems such information proprietary, but analysts can generally describe where P2T is making gains against land mobile radio (LMR) systems. “It's developed into very blue-collar applications,” Amoroso said. “Construction, truckers, contractors … government and public-safety officials. It's the typical verticals you'd expect.”

There are many reasons for such users to switch from LMR to a P2T-based system. “With LMR, you have to manage your own system, manage your spectrum, mange your interference [issues],” said Dan Tillet, Sprint Nextel product manager. “All those things mean you have to have a specialist. That costs a lot of money to keep those people employed.”

Tillet said an increasing number of users — including those in the public sector — are adapting the carrier's P2T services as a primary or secondary means of communication, even though the company doesn't guarantee service. In fact, many users are willing to accept a trade-off of reliability for better system coverage than their existing LMR services provide, he said. Sprint Nextel's DirectConnect service can be found nationwide, far beyond the bounds of a tower-based LMR system.

“We compete with [P2T systems] daily,” said Myron Polulak, owner of New England Communications Systems. “For fleet systems, it becomes a bit more of a challenge when you deal with users with wide-area requirements. If the dealer can't provide coverage in their work footprint, then we sell Nextel, to be quite honest.”

However, he added that he had several large non-public sector customers that continue to own and operate their own LMR solutions. “They want the ability to control their own system,” he said.

Manassas Cab is one fleet operator that has made the switch from a dispatch system to P2T. “We opened the business in '94 and bought radios for a trunked 700MHz tower,” said owner Joe Bryant. “Nextel bought [the tower] about two years later. Then we went to an 800MHz trunked system and bought radios for it. Nextel was going to buy the frequencies, so we sat down with [them] and saw the way to go was with something non-proprietary.”

The company ended up as a pioneer in using Nextel's services for taxi dispatch. “We worked with one of their partners, ActSoft, that used the Nextel phones as a data service. The courier service [software] wasn't really for taxi cabs, but we helped them develop a program that would work with taxis,” Bryant said.

The company leases about 55 Sprint Nextel phones to drivers at a rate of $15 per phone, per week.

One of the reasons Bryant was happy to migrate was his perception — shared by others in the industry — that obtaining licenses for LMR use is going to be more difficult in the future.

“People that have proprietary systems, 700 MHz, 800 MHz, whatever — if they have them now, the chance of having them in 10 to 15 years is small,” he said. “The FCC's mission is to [allocate] frequencies for the benefit of the most people. One thing that the traditional [taxi and livery] guys and I could agree upon [is] eventually you won't have enough frequencies. They won't be available to companies.”

Bryant said there's a lot of benefit in tapping into Sprint Nextel's network compared with working through the licensing and interference issues associated with LMR. “I could have bought a system and [then leased spectrum], but I would have been under someone's thumb. If Nextel does bad things to me, I can complain. I can actually get a human being on the phone,” he said.

Manassas Cab leased trunked radios at $25 per month per radio. Now drivers pay $60 per month per Sprint handset, but they're happy to do it because they can be “on call” no matter what they are doing, rather than simply sitting in the cab waiting for a dispatch assignment. “It gives them more freedom so they're happy to [pay for a phone],” Bryant said.

Another factor was the performance issues Bryant encountered with his trunked radio system. “There's a lot of problems with trunked,” he said. “When power fails on it, you get certain companies overlapping on certain channels. We had to fight with a garbage company [on interference]. … For some reason, I have fewer [coverage] holes with DirectConnect than I do with the trunked system, and basically, they're coming from the same tower.”

Eventually, Manassas Cab migrated to a data solution using Nextel's phones and ActSoft's Comet transportation management software. Voice is used primarily as a backup, an approach that might not work for all fleets, particularly small operators that might not be able to afford a data solution, according to Bryant.

“There's a lot of small taxi cab companies that are using the Nextel voice-only DirectConnect. … As they grow, they eventually come to the point where they need to use data, especially when they have a large number of accounts with invoicing information,” he said.

It's a handy tool for any fleet operator, particularly a taxi service. Data messaging incorporates time-stamping of transmissions, which is used to provide detailed information on a driver's pickup point, account information and drop-off location.

“You get to a point where [on] a busy Friday evening, is it ‘Rary Road’ or ‘Quarry Road?’ It becomes a zoo. Data solves that,” Bryant said.

Although two-way data messaging provides the backbone of Manassas Cab's services, the company has eschewed some of the platform's advanced services. “We buy phones with GPS functionality, but we don't use it,” Bryant said. “GPS is still fairly expensive … about $30 per vehicle, per month. That just means the cab drivers can tell you where they aren't, and that's pretty easy to figure out because he can't make the call on time.”

Another high-tech feature that gets a warm reception from Bryant are picture phones. “When they're at an accident, they can record the damage,” Bryant said. “When people are in an accident, they think we're made of money. … A picture helps with that. There's a tremendous amount of insurance fraud out there.”

Bryant's only complaint with his current system is the price. “One reason why the guys with the [LMR] proprietary systems are still in business, they get much lower [operational] costs than those with a public system,” he said, expressing hope that competition from other vendors might drive the service price down in the future.

Reliability also was an issue at first, as Nextel initially took the system down at night. “Our first week, they took [it] down at Friday at 11 p.m. For must businesses, that's no problem, but for us, that's primetime,” Bryant said. “We worked with them, [and] we don't see outages anymore.”