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I am not predicting that Nextel will lose a large number of its customers, but it is not the only game in town anymore.

Cingular's PTT Finally Launched

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Last week saw the long-awaited launch of Cingular's nationwide PTT service, which employ's Kodiak Network's PTT and Advanced Audio Services technology. I say long-awaited because I expected this announcement well before now. According to Cingular, its launch was delayed to ensure there would be a sufficient number of PTT-capable handsets in its channels.

I have been a fan of push-to-talk services for a long time, partly because I started my career in "wireless" working with public safety and first responder organizations in the 1970s. I grew up on PTT so I followed Nextel's success with great interest. Sprint Nextel's iDEN system and PTT offering is almost as good as that of dedicated two-way radio dispatch systems. It's only a little slower because it has to go through a switch to set up and complete the PTT session. With private two-way direct dispatch, the PTT switch itself turns on the transmitter and all other radios on the system are in receive mode on the same channel, so units do not have to be identified and paths do not have to be created.

For a long time now, I believed one of the other nationwide wireless networks would adopt a PTT service that would compete with Nextel's system. When Verizon and Sprint launched their PTT using Voice over IP (VoIP) I was encouraged, but then tried these systems and found they were more like push-to-wait services than push-to-talk. Then Alltel launched PTT on its CDMA network with the Kodiak technology and I was impressed with how good it was. Kodiak uses the voice channel (VoIP PTT solutions use the data channel) and it makes a huge difference. Based on Alltel's success, I was confident that a larger network operator would also launch PTT with Kodiak's system. And finally, Cingular has.

The call initiation on the Cingular system is a little slower than on the Nextel system, but this difference is hidden well by Kodiak's unique use of audio buffering. Once the PTT call is set up, it is just as fast if not faster than Nextel's system. Cingular is also offering a number of advanced voice features that go well beyond what Nextel offers today.

For example, it is possible to start a PTT session and then switch to a full duplex conference call by pushing a single button. Next is the ability to record a voice message and have it delivered to multiple people without ringing their phones. This is really a broadcast feature that should be popular with sales managers, among others, who want to send important information to their people in the field in a timely manner. Users can build new groups directly from their phone book and see who is available for a PTT session simply by looking at the group list.

Cingular is targeting two distinct groups with its PTT offerings. First is the mobile workforce, including both blue and white collar, which is the same market that drove the Nextel PTT uptake. With Cingular's large installed base (from the AT&T side), I think it will do well in this market. The second is the family and friends or teen market that had been served solely by Boost Mobile, which is now a part of Sprint Nextel. Teens like to talk in groups. Except for IM on a desktop computer or on a phone, there was no real way for them to do that unless they were face-to-face. Therefore, I think PTT for this market will be a big winner. Cingular already has many families using their phones under a family plan. Cingular's pricing for unlimited PTT on a single line is $9.95 per month and $19.99 per month for up to five family members.

There are two sets of phones for these groups -- those that will appeal to teens and families as well as business, and those that are ruggedized for more harsh environments. Not all of these phones are available yet, but they are coming to Cingular outlets before long. There will be more choices over time and while Nextel's full line of phones is PTT capable, Cingular will continue to add more phones to its line-up that include PTT and other advanced features.

The Advantage of Using Voice for PTT

Cingular probably won't offer PTT phones for its analog users since it is looking forward to the day when they will all be moved to digital, but since it uses voice channels it could, and it could offer the service over its TDMA network. Moving forward, it won't have any problem offering PTT over both GSM and WCDMA, so it won't have to rip out one system and put in another in the future.

VoIP PTT is getting better, but until Qualcomm's QChat can be deployed by Sprint (Verizon won't be able to use QChat), there won't be a VoIP competitor that is on equal footing, at least from what I have seen. The problem with QChat is that it will only work on CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. A, which will be available next year. This means Sprint would have to upgrade every cell site in its entire network to Rev. A, which I don't think will happen for many years. Since you can't offer a PTT system that only works on part of your network, this will leave Sprint with its iDEN system on the Nextel network.

Sprint has stated that it will be offering combination CDMA/iDEN phones. I have to assume that this will enable PTT over iDEN and other voice and data services over CDMA. This should work for a while and Sprint has committed to keeping iDEN in its network until at least 2010. These combination phones can also be used to off-load voice traffic from the Nextel portion of the network, which will help its PTT users access the systems in places where today there are delays during busy hours.

I haven't heard anything about PTT from the folks at T-Mobile, but you can bet they are looking at it, especially since Orange rolled out Kodiak's PTT system in Europe and PTT is gaining traction there. Verizon is still offering its VoIP PTT service and while it won't release subscriber numbers, my own seat-of-the-pants research shows that sales people in the stores (or at least in twenty stores in various parts of the country) will only sell PTT when specifically asked about it. They don't offer it as an option when customers go in to buy phones.

There is no market research that proves or disproves the size of the PTT market in the United States or anywhere else in the world. However, Sprint recently issued a Fact Sheet on its PTT offerings. Among the points it made was that Nextel has been offering PTT for thirteen years, it is committed to PTT on the iDEN network at least through 2010 and it is developing CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. A PTT services and a gateway to enable both iDEN and EV-DO Rev A customers to use PTT across both networks.

Sprint claims that 90% of its legacy customers use its nationwide and international walkie-talkie services and since 2004 it has offered NextMail, which enables sending voice messages to individuals or groups of up to fifty. It goes on to outline the advantages of its walkie-talkie services and makes a good case for why it believes it will retain the leadership role in the PTT market.

But as you look at the new entrants, you see that Alltel has been offering PTT services for more than a year and roams on the Verizon network for nationwide coverage. (The set-up time is a little slower when roaming, but once the connection is established it is very quick.) Amps is also launching a Kodiak-based system over Verizon's network, and now Cingular is into PTT and added voice services in a big way.

I am not predicting that Nextel will lose a large number of its customers, but it is not the only game in town anymore. I think two things will happen: First, push-to-talk will become a more widely understood voice feature and will be included on more handsets, and second, any customers who are unhappy with the Nextel offering now have a choice of suppliers. Smart marketing and advertising could mean that Cingular will be able to grab some of the business market. Because of the AT&T merger, Cingular now has a huge installed base of both white and blue collar workers.

Cingular will be aggressive in this marketplace and I think it will do well in both the business and the teen/family market segments. I expect to see a number of new PTT-capable handsets showing up in its stores during the next few quarters. And I don't think Cingular will be the last network operator in the United States to take a new look at the potential size of the PTT market. We will see others jumping in with solutions that will rival those being offered by Sprint (on the Nextel side), Alltel and now Cingular in the United States.

From a business perspective, Cingular and Sprint Nextel have an advantage over Verizon at the moment. Both offer good PTT services and both can provide high-speed data in a number of cities. I think this is a powerful combination, at least for the business market. A PC Card for a laptop along with a wireless phone with PTT and regular wireless calling capabilities gives the mobile workforce a great set of voice and data tools that provide instant communications from almost anywhere.

Cingular, welcome to the world of push-to-talk! It has taken you a long time to get here, but I think you will do well. I will close with some advice for all who offer PTT services over public wireless works: What you offer is a great tool for both business and consumer customers. However, it is NOT a replacement for first responder private dispatch services. It can be used as a secondary form of PTT communications to off-load dispatch networks of administrative and other non-essential communications, but it cannot replace first responder dispatch networks. It can be used for a certain level of interoperability between agencies, but should NOT be sold as a mission-critical communications service.

Having the largest wireless network operator in the United States adding PTT services to its network can only help grow the market. And Kodiak has proven it is possible to provide PTT and other voice services that are as good as those being delivered by Nextel. Interestingly enough, it is not by deploying Voice over IP services over the data network. Data is coming on strong, but voice still pays the bills. PTT over voice channels could boost Cingular's ARPU as well.

Andrew M. Seybold

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