Two-way dealers can expand with 911
For the most part, the burgeoning cell phone business has diminished the natural markets for two-way radio dealers, particularly since the advent of cellular push-to-talk services that mimic the walkie-talkie functionality needed by most enterprises.
But two-way radio dealers can profit indirectly from the growth in cellular subscribers by providing 911 equipment and services to local public-safety answering points, or PSAPs, said Laura Myhre, manager of Zetron’s product management group.
“Ironically, public-safety funding has been increased on the 911 side due to cellular use,” Myhre said. “The increase in the need for 911 equipment is due primarily to the support of wireless calls, in terms of providing location information and routing to the appropriate PSAP.”
Indeed, in December 2004, Congress passed a bill calling for $1.25 billion in funding during the next five years, primarily to upgrade PSAPs so they can handle wireless E911 calls in a manner that detects the location of callers. That federal funding is in addition to the $100 million spent annually by local entities on 911 equipment, Myhre said.
These circumstances create an expanding market that should be attractive to dealers that may see their traditional radio customers looking in other directions, said Randy Richmond, Zetron’s radio-dispatch product manager.
“And, oftentimes, the [revenue from] maintenance can be worth as much as the equipment over the life of the contract,” Richmond said.
Because many two-way radio dealers already have a customer relationship with the public-safety entities that operate the PSAP, they are ideally suited to supply 911 solutions, Myhre said.
“Two-way radio dealers are well-positioned to enter the 911 market, and there’s no better time to do it than now, particularly because of the 911 funding and due to upgrades required for wireless support,” she said. “Public-safety customers pretty much already know their two-way radio resellers, so they have some sort of reputation for providing support, installation and service. We have seen that as a positive thing in transitioning from two-way radio support to 911.”
And, if pursued correctly, it can be a lucrative business; Zetron said one of its dealers added as much as $1 million to its bottom lines via PSAP equipment sales in recent years, Richmond said.
“This is not something that sounds good on paper but doesn’t work in practice,” he said. “We have a number of examples where resellers have succeeded at it.”
Supplying and servicing PSAPs was long a domain occupied solely by incumbent phone carriers, but that changed around 1990 when Motorola began selling to PSAPs, Richmond said.
“Motorola initially was selling directly to the PSAP, not through a reseller,” Richmond said. “But what Motorola did was set a precedent in the mind of PSAPs that they have a choice other than the phone company.”
Even with this foot in the door, radio dealers generally have been reluctant to pursue PSAP contracts, largely because they are unfamiliar with the telephony market that is integral to 911, Richmond said. While telephony terminology may sound daunting to many radio dealers, it’s really just different names for concepts similar to those used in the radio arena, Richmond said.
“It’s a lot easier for a radio reseller to learn 911 than it is for someone who really knows 911 to learn radio dispatch, primarily because of the complexity of radio dispatch,” Zetron’s Myhre said.
Louis Cartwright, president of Cartwright Communications in Knoxville, Tenn., echoed this sentiment.
“A lot of these dealers are radio guys only, and they don’t understand the phone side,” said Cartwright, who has been selling solutions to PSAPs for more than a decade. “It’s not that difficult [to learn the phone side], but it’s foreign to them.”
Assuming state laws give PSAPs the flexibility to choose their vendor, Richmond believes the primary criteria for offering services to PSAPs is the ability to provide 24-hour support. This may keep smaller radio shops from entering the market, but it should not be a problem for dealers already providing such support for their radio products, he said.
“If a reseller’s already having to provide 24-by-7 support for radio dispatch, then 911 is not a big deal,” Richmond said. “I think any reseller at that level is capable of selling 911.”
One of the advantages radio dealers have is they can sell equipment to PSAPs that already use their radio-dispatch systems, as a growing number of PSAP directors are realizing the value of integrating the operations.
“You gain more functionality,” Cartwright said. “A Zetron phone and a Zetron console are going to work together better than trying to merge different [manufacturers’] products.”
Indeed, integrating 911 and radio-dispatch functions can result in a system that is better than the “sum of its parts,” Richmond said.
For instance, separate mapping functions for 911 and dispatch can be combined in an integrated solution, allowing a dispatcher to quickly identify the first responder closest to an incident and even provide the shortest route, Richmond said. Being able to perform these functions on a single PC is particularly attractive in oft-crowded PSAPs.
“Space is always a premium in front of an operator,” Richmond said. “If you don’t integrate, you end up with one PC that runs radio dispatch and another PC to run 911.”
Perhaps the greatest advantage of an integrated 911 system for the PSAP is that dispatch supervisors know who to call if there is a malfunction.
“In the middle of the night, when something goes wrong, you don’t have to call five people to figure out what needs to be fixed,” said Terry Griffin, sales manager for Smith Two-Way Radio in Fayetteville, Ark., which recently began offering comprehensive 911 service to PSAPs. “This way, one call does it all.”
But Griffin and Cartwright acknowledge that finger-pointing still occurs — although they try to shield their PSAP customers from it — because even the most integrated PSAP still relies on the incumbent phone company for its fundamental connections.
“The biggest problem is dealing with the Bells,” Cartwright said. “If I had a dollar for every time they said it wasn’t their problem when it turns out it was, I’d be doing very well right now.”
Working with the phone company creates an interesting environment because the telephone carrier not only is an important partner in any radio dealer’s PSAP solution, it’s also the biggest rival in getting the business. Indeed, for larger PSAPs, there’s no question that contracting with the telephone carrier is more comfortable for elected officials making decisions, Richmond said.
“The local phone company here is real strong,” Griffin said. “They’ve got a lot of the county commissioners thinking that, if you don’t go with the phone company, you can’t have 911. So, it can be a tough sell.”
But that’s not as true for smaller PSAPs, which constitute an overwhelming percentage of the market (see chart). In fact, PSAPs in remote areas may have had a bad experience with phone-carrier support and would rather have a trusted local radio dealer provide its solution, Richmond said.
It’s a formula that’s worked well for Cartwright, who estimated that selling to the PSAP market accounts for 20% to 30% of his company’s annual revenue. And identifying such revenue streams when the traditional radio market is diminishing is critical, Cartwright said.
“In any business, there’s going to be changes, and you’ve got to evolve,” he said. “You even need to look ahead at what the next thing will be. If you wait until it happens, it will be too late.”
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