Commercial Push-To-Talk: Missing the Mark?

I believe that PTT can become more prevalent in the commercial world. It will take some work and some education, but it can be done, and I believe there is a much broader market for PTT than only those who are leaving the world of two-way radio for cellular services.

In a recent cartoon, a pediatrician asked the mother if her baby had started texting yet. Today’s youth is growing up fast with cellular phones and messaging. Before cellular service, we used push-to-talk devices such as walkie-talkies, handheld radios, or perhaps citizens band radio. Some of us took the FCC’s amateur radio exam and have been using two-way radio voice communications ever since, while today’s smartphone generation doesn’t have a clue about two-way radio and push-to-talk. Their world is predominantly texting and social network site interaction with relatively little voice communications.

Those who grew up before cellular or have used Family Radio walkie-talkies are familiar with voice and push-to-talk (PTT). PTT is when one person pushes the transmit button and talks to one or more people at the same time. Unlike cellular phone service, with PTT, a person talks while holding down the PTT button, releases the PTT button, and then listens for an answer. Again, this can be one-to-one or one-to-many communications. No conference calls need to be set up because everyone who has a PTT-capable radio (or PTT application on a smartphone) and is on the same channel hears the conversation and can participate.

Land Mobile Radio or two-way radio is a PTT-based radio service that is still being used by first responders, businesses, and others who need to communicate over short distances and need to be able to give the same information to multiple people simultaneously. PTT services were used in the first two-way radios in the 1930s and they are still used today by millions of people, but our youth have not been exposed to them.

When Nextel was formed in the 1980s, it made use of two-way radio, not cellular spectrum, and it replaced many two-way radio systems around the United States. Thus the Nextel folks decided that their devices would have to include PTT services as well as typical cellular services. Many two-way radio users moved over to Nextel because it offered better range for their PTT service as well as voice calling and texting. For many years, Nextel was the only commercial operator to offer PTT services in addition to traditional voice and text, but Nextel will be gone by this time next year when Sprint rolls out broadband services on the Nextel spectrum.

AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and others seemed to have no interest in PTT services since the market size is small, the technology to make PTT work over their networks is complex, and until only a few short years ago, it didn’t work very well. This has all changed over the past two years as Sprint, knowing it would be reinventing Nextel, began offering PTT services over its CDMA network. Verizon and AT&T followed but with PTT services that required users to wait for several seconds before they could talk. Needless to say, neither Verizon’s nor AT&T’s first PTT offering was well received.

However, now all three of these networks—AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon—have added PTT services over all of these networks that are now almost as good as PTT service over dedicated two-way radios. In recent tests I completed, one of the criteria I used was to determine if after pushing the PTT button on a phone there is a delay that would cause listeners to miss the first word. I chose a phrase that would be used by a swat team commander in the field: “Don’t Shoot!” In the tests I ran only three years ago, the “don’t” was lost because of system delays. I chose that particular phrase because the implications of it not being heard correctly could be disastrous, which makes the point that any delay in audio is unacceptable.

In all three of today’s commercial systems, those listening hear that phrase in its entirety. However, I want to make it VERY clear that commercial push-to-talk services over any of the three networks should NOT be considered as a replacement for what is termed “Mission-Critical Voice Services” used for dispatch and communications by the Public Safety community. Commercial PTT is very good for those who use two-way radios for their own businesses, or even Public Safety personnel who are not sworn and in the field. Even so, it is NOT robust enough for primary Public Safety use.

I have been working with PTT services for a very long time now and have watched the operators try and fail and then try again, this time getting it right. However, the operators view PTT as a niche market— something that needs to be offered on a few devices but not something that is a mainstream must-have such as texting or Internet access. Their primary target market for PTT services are customers who are using two-way radios for non-mission-critical services, most of whom currently use two devices, a smartphone and a dedicated PTT radio. By offering PTT over the commercial networks, these customers can carry a single device and still have PTT as well as all of the traditional cellular services, and their PTT service can be used nationwide.

The reason PTT is considered a niche market is because the number of people using two-way radios today is small when compared to those using wireless devices. There are perhaps twenty million PTT users in the United States, excluding Public Safety, while today the number of wireless device users has climbed to more than 300 million. Smartphones sell in the millions of devices while PTT-capable handsets are selling in the thousands today. I believe that this is where all of the commercial networks that are offering PTT are missing a bet. What if PTT could become a standard feature set used by millions rather than thousands of users?

I believe this would be possible and achievable if the network operators spent some time educating the youth of America. These people love texting, a lot of their texting is one-to-many, and they tend to chat in groups. PTT services would enable them to exchange voice messages one-to-many and PTT supports multiple groups—a new group can be quickly assembled simply by selecting names from the device’s address book. Further, PTT services show who is online and available to talk with, so when a conversation is started, users know whether the person or group they want to reach is available. I don’t think PTT will replace texting because texting is silent and PTT is voice, but today’s youths do want to communicate one-to-many and PTT offers that capability.

Several things need to happen if PTT is to achieve mass-market adoption. The first is that a PTT standard between networks will have to be established or, at the very least, PTT gateways will need to be put in place. Why? Because history shows that texting, MMS, and other services that were available only on one individual network at first did not really take off until customers were able to text or MMS anyone regardless of what network they were on. Today the three network operators that offer PTT services each has its own vendor and one system’s PTT is not compatible with another’s. There are some standards available for this including the standard AT&T has chosen for its PTT offering. Since PTT is now an application on a device and not hardwired into it, changing to a common PTT format would be possible in a very short period of time. Potential PTT customers won’t accept PTT in large numbers if it is available only with others on the same network.

Next, more devices will have to become PTT-capable. This is also easy to accomplish with most of today’s commercial PTT offerings because, as mentioned, PTT is now an application. All three network operators are offering devices with PTT pre-installed but they also offer the PTT application for downloading, and users can assign a specific key to the PTT function or use PTT by touching the screen of a smartphone.

PTT applications will have to run on devices all of the time and be easy to access. Simply pushing the PTT button or selecting a single icon should invoke a session. PTT users’ devices should be listening to PTT all of the time and be ready for instant use. Users should be able to move from one group to another simply by selecting a group, see who within that group is available for a PTT session, and be able to leave a message. Push-to-talk in the commercial world offers more than push-to-talk. Network operators are also offering options such as push-to-send images, video, or other information in addition to voice services.

I believe that PTT can become more prevalent in the commercial world. It will take some work and some education, but it can be done, and I believe there is a much broader market for PTT than only those who are leaving the world of two-way radio for cellular services. I believe that many others, if they came to understand what PTT is and what it can do, would want to make it part of their device’s capabilities. Could PTT become a viral must-have application that grows exponentially in size? If the network operators don’t promote it differently and if they don’t work together on a common standard for PTT, it will remain a niche product. It could be so very much more.

Andrew M. Seybold

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