Last week at IWCE 2011 in Las Vegas, wireless consultant Andy Seybold told of the time, five years ago, that he conducted a study for the American Automobile Association (AAA) that explored whether commercial push-to-talk service was a viable option for the organization. The answer was a resounding “no,” he said, primarily because the technology wasn’t ready. For example, one carrier’s push-to-talk service had a call set-up time of three to four seconds, which Seybold called “a disaster.”

“But it’s a different story today. The technology is better and the time is right,” he said, adding that the carrier in question today has “a much-improved offering that works very well.”

The technology is better because carriers invested billions of dollars to improve their networks, according to Seybold. He added that only a handful of significant problems still exist. One concerns group P2T — when everybody is in the same cell sector, a bandwidth shortage can occur. Another concerns the fact that — with the exception of Sprint Nextel — commercial carriers generally offer a limited selection of P2T-capable devices. “That will get better as operators get more interested in push-to-talk,” said Seybold, who predicted that someday customers would be able to download a client to their existing phones that will make them P2T capable.

And while in-building issues still exist in some places, “there aren’t many spots today where you don’t have good coverage,” Seybold said.

Indeed, a plethora of advantages exists to commercial P2T services for the enterprise sector. One is that commercial coverage footprints generally are much larger than those offered by land-mobile radio (LMR) systems. Another is that myriad functions — such as P2T voice, cellular voice, text, Internet access and GPS — all can be converged on commercial devices.

“And, hardened commercial devices are available that are less expensive than LMR devices — and more are coming,” Seybold said.

For these reasons, Seybold believes that any enterprise should take a look at commercial P2T services, including taxi companies, transportation companies, delivery services and any business that employs field technicians or service agents. He even believes that public-safety agencies also should consider commercial P2T services, but only for non-sworn personnel. “This is not designed to replace mission-critical voice for first responders,” he said.

It is especially important, according to Seybold, that any entity that is operating at 512 MHz or below take a long, hard look at commercial P2T service because of the Federal Communications Commission mandate that such systems be converted from the current 25 kHz-wide channels to 12.5-kHz operation by Jan. 1, 2013, a process popularly known as narrowbanding. The P2T fees currently being offered by the commercial operators are at an all-time low, which means that such services might be a far less expensive option compared with narrowbanding an existing LMR system, Seybold said.

There are other significant problems associated with narrowbanding beyond cost, according to Seybold. For instance, all radios have to be converted at the same time, which would be a challenge for many organizations. “You can mix and match, but the audio quality will go to hell,” Seybold said.

In addition, Seybold said that licensees should expect up to 25% degradation of the radio signal after narrowbanding. “That means you may have to add more sites,” he said, which would increase costs considerably. If that wasn’t enough, any licensee that opts for narrowbanding will have to modify their FCC license.

So, it might be less costly — and a lot less problematic — simply to convert to commercial P2T service, especially for those entities that have to replace their entire fleet of LMR mobiles and portables. For those who move in that direction, Seybold offered a few tips:

  • Execute the migration in phases, starting with executives and then moving to field personnel after it has been established that the service is working properly. Use an IP bridge to connect the existing LMR system to the commercial P2T service.
  • Choose the commercial carrier that has equal to better coverage to that provided by the legacy LMR system.
  • Ask the carrier not only about the devices they offer today that are P2T-capable, but also about what they are planning to offer in the future.
  • Ask the carrier to provide a pair of phones so that the P2T service can be tested before any contracts are signed — or insist on a 90-day money-back guarantee.

"If they want your business, they will find a way to work with you,” Seybold said. “You have to remember that you’re not a single customer. The more lines you have, the more interested they’ll be in you.”

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