PTT over Cellular: We have lift-off!
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Push-to-talk over Cellular (PoC) has arguably come into its own, thanks in part to the maturity of 4G networks and increasing support from the big PMR players. Sam Fenwick reports

It has been impossible to ignore PoC’s rise, due partly to the industry’s marketing machine cranking out an impressive number of case studies. However, it has been harder to fully gauge the extent to which it is being adopted by end-users in the UK. Tim Allerton, CEO at PTTI (Push to Talk International), says while his company had seen its number of PoC subscribers languish at around 5,000 for a while, it has added another 15,000 in the past 18-24 months and is currently adding an extra 150-200 connections per month on average.

“We’ve gone from proof of concept to mainstream, [with users hailing] from a wide range of different sectors, including hospitals and security companies. We’ve opened offices in Poland and Ireland and the number of radio resellers [selling PoC] has grown.”

Hans Becker, director at iPTT (international Push to Talk), tells a similar tale: “[We’re] seeing exponential growth quarter-on-quarter and year-on-year… it’s really [starting] to pick up now. The main thing that’s changed is that end-users are now starting to request PoC.” He adds that the process of educating the market about PoC “has definitely happened – not least because all the big players in the PMR market are entering the PoC market as well”.

“We’ve seen a big take-up of PTT over Cellular,” adds Bob Stockley, managing director at Icom UK, “but it appears to be incremental to our business as our normal LMR sales remain strong.” However, Allerton says he is surprised by the degree to which PTTI is converting two-way radio users to PoC, as opposed to growing the two-way radio market as a whole, despite the fact that the company is “on a mission to grow the market and win back people who moved from two-way radio to cellular” through offering rugged smartphones that are capable of running a wide number of mobile working applications, thereby allowing the PoC service to become an inherent part of the end-user’s workflow, just like email. “However, we do fundamentally believe that this will happen,” he says.

Not just for the far-flung
My previous articles on PoC have touched on the way in which the (near) national coverage it offers is a good fit for haulage and logistics companies. Sam Ogles, sales and marketing executive at Syndico, adds that “security customers are particularly suited to PoC [as it allows] teams [to] be deployed to different locations, no matter where geographically, with ready-to-go communications”. He adds that security teams, which are often deployed to locations that have their own wireless and cellular network infrastructure on top of that provided by the mobile network operators (MNOs), will work at each location without any need for reprogramming. Ogles also says that “PoC is a feasible option for inner-city users who are struggling to obtain a VHF or UHF licence, particularly within new buildings with comprehensive Wi-Fi infrastructure throughout”.

Allerton adds that PTTI is providing PoC for use within buildings, including a large number of campuses, and that “our largest client is a security company on a national basis, but they’re using it on a Wi-Fi basis which can then switch to LTE. We’ve replaced a lot of campus two-way radio communications.”

Icom’s Stockley says two other examples of where PoC is a good fit for end-users are “in the area of short- and mid-term rental. Running and cycling events are particularly popular right now and we have been successfully involved with some very high-profile events recently. We also see some rail utility and maintenance organisations using PoC.”

He adds that one deployment that stands out to him “is a customer that used our IP501 terminals in a South American country in permanent two-way communication with their offices back here, in Scotland and in the Midlands. It was just like normal point-to-point two-way LMR. Although it used a fair bit of SIM data, it proves how versatile our system is.” Stockley continues: “We can already integrate to our Satellite PTT device, [allowing us to] offer global comms; imagine being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, pressing a PTT button on a IC-SAT100 and talking back to the UK, or indeed anywhere, to an Icom PoC terminal or a conventional LMR or maritime or aviation radio device through our RoIP gateway.”

iPTT’s Becker says “construction and roadworks is a huge area” for his company as PoC removes the expense of deploying a lot of two-way infrastructure and the hassle of obtaining the necessary approvals if it has to be deployed on someone else’s land. He adds that local councils are another growth area for iPTT, especially when they cover a large area and “need communication coverage beyond the six-mile radius of a [two-way radio] repeater”. He adds that PoC is also a good fit for maintenance companies, which may have a workforce that is spread across the UK, especially as it can give a boost to their productivity.

Latency, voice quality, security
From speaking with various industry figures, it is clear that end-user training is essentially minimal if they have any experience of using two-way radios.

Stockley recommends carrying out a trial to see how the equipment performs and that three key things to focus on are latency, voice quality and the security of the network/PoC application that is being used. Speaking of Icom’s system, he adds that “most users are immediately really impressed by the performance, especially with the full duplex feature. We also offer simple tracking, with a more complex version including dispatcher coming very soon, [and] our voice clarity is better than digital PMR.”

Going back to the issue of security, PTTI’s Allerton says his company works heavily on security and recommends that end-users should only use 3GPP and OMA PoC-compliant software, adding that of the PoC services available in the UK, there are only two that are, and “these cheap and cheerful Chinese services definitely are not”. He adds that OMA PoC is the standard that 3GPP has used as the foundation of its mission-critical PTT (MCPTT) service, having 80 per cent of the functionality that it required. Allerton also says that with PoC, it is critical (as would be the case in any two-way radio system) that you understand the entire ecosystem, what software is running, if it complies to a standard and where your system is hosted. He explains that a private secure hosting platform with dedicated connectivity to network operators inside a private secure cloud is the correct way to go.

iPTT’s Becker adds that if you already have a large two-way radio system and are concerned about the cost and difficulty of migrating to a new technology in one go, a gateway can allow even analogue users to talk to those using a PoC system, which avoids the need to replace a whole fleet of terminals and means you can transition to PoC over time.

Deal or no deal?
Of course, if PoC is to realise its full potential and be deployed en mass, it needs to be fully embraced by the two-way reseller/dealership community, and many would be forgiven for asking what’s in it for them. Syndico’s Ogles explains it is “primarily an opportunity to boost their ongoing revenue with every connection, and it’s also really easy to provide a comprehensive after-sales service thanks to PoC’s over-the-air fleet management and programming capabilities. Furthermore, many of their business customers could benefit not only from being able to connect users over vast and ever-changing geographical areas, but also by converging their operational and communication systems into powerful, smart devices.”

PTTI’s Allerton says PoC’s remote support capabilities that include the ability to update fleetmaps over the air, coupled with enterprise mobility management software that can fix glitches in devices’ firmware and software from afar, mean that “resellers won’t need to be locally based to [support their] end-customers any more, they can send devices anywhere on the planet… for the right-minded reseller, there’s a lot of growth”.

Part of PoC’s appeal is the way it can accelerate the shift from a feast or famine CAPEX-based model to one based on subscriptions, given components such as user licences, data packages, access to the PoC service’s servers and so on, thereby making it easier to manage cashflow. As iPTT’s Becker puts it, “PoC is the gift that keeps on giving”.

Motorola Solutions has gone beyond a software-as-a-service model for PoC with its WAVE TLK 100 PoC device with the potential for its resellers to provide it via a subscription, or mixed hardware purchase/service subscription, or even on a rental basis. PTTI’s Allerton says the first approach – wrapping the device into the PoC service – is inevitable and highlights the benefits that can be realised by resellers that offer more than just the PoC service with devices, such as mobile working/workflow management apps via virtual stores (along the lines of Google’s Play store).

So, how easy is it to start selling PoC? iPTT’s Becker says “in the on-boarding phase for resellers we support them 100 per cent and we offer both sales and technical training. We encourage our resellers to go through that, after which they will get access to the server as well so they can start changing things. But we’re [always there to make sure] they don’t stumble.”

Syndico’s Ogles adds that it will be interesting to see how PoC affects resellers’ ability to differentiate themselves. “Ecommerce is becoming more common among our resellers and, although it’s great to see [them] being competitive, the only problem is that we are seeing online prices creeping down. It will be hard to sell a complete PoC solution entirely online as every system is individual in its own right; however, something which PMR resellers are generally very good at is after-sales support. With PoC’s remote programming capabilities, resellers have a great platform to offer their customers ongoing support.”

PoC has clearly come a long way since its humble beginnings, but what might the future hold? Ogles is hoping that “we will see the price of data decrease, as the cost of SIMs is a primary consideration when procuring a PoC solution, and therefore the capability of the platform is limited, to a degree, by its cellular data consumption. If data does indeed become cheaper, there is room for innovation of live video services within PoC, specifically with regards to remote job security and auditing. For example, if an engineer who attends a remote job is able to livestream their work, the potential for safety and operational transparency hugely increases. If there were something like an ‘out-of-the-box’ feature across all professional PoC platforms it would be a positive step forward.”

Allerton highlights the potential for growth in the mission-critical sector, given plans in many European countries to move their public safety agencies’ voice services over to mission-critical broadband networks, and also sees the potential for running PoC on a body-worn camera device as a way to reduce the number of devices that are required.

PoC is enjoying a renaissance, is a good fit for more than just the obvious wide area use-case, and there are plenty of ways innovative resellers can capitalise on its full potential. Given that the major two-way radio vendors have only recently fully embraced the technology, it would be logical to assume there is still quite a lot of room for future innovation.

Infrastructure: down but not out
One concern about the rise of PoC is its implications for infrastructure sales (two-radio systems rather than terminals), given that in many cases no extra infrastructure is required and that in situations where it is, such as large buildings that also require broadband connectivity, we are talking Wi-Fi/small cells/DAS, which might be outside resellers’ comfort zones.

However, this can be seen in a positive light – in the sense that PoC lowers the barrier to entry (through leveraging the billions invested by the MNOs) and that the ability to offer Wi-Fi/cellular in-building coverage solutions may become a way in which canny resellers can differentiate themselves. Tim Allerton says PTTI “ended up selling one client a DAS system as well [as PoC] for some underground areas, that not only helped him with PoC in areas [which previously had poor cellular coverage], but also gave him much better LTE service [throughout the building]”.

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