In the market for... PTT over Cellular
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:

There is a lot of buzz at the moment about using Push-To-Talk over Cellular services in conjunction with smartphones, but if you are looking to invest in them, what do you need to consider? Simon Creasey investigates

Push-To-Talk over Cellular (PoC) applications have been around for about a decade, and although the basic technology that underpins them has barely changed over the past few years, the rugged smartphone market has witnessed some seismic hardware shifts. Until recently, users had to ‘make do’ with standard ruggedised smartphones that weren’t specifically designed to handle PoC applications, according to Andrew Wilson, managing director at Syndico.

In most cases there wasn’t even a dedicated push-to-talk (PTT) button on the handset. However, today there is a whole host of different rugged smartphones with PoC capabilities that have been designed from the ground up, and this latest generation of kit is starting to drive significant uptake from end-users. But given the growing number of competing bits of hardware on the market, what do businesses need to consider when procuring rugged smartphones with a view to running PoC applications on them?

Although PoC rugged smartphone devices are widely in use, with the number of users growing all the time, there was initial reluctance in the dealer channel to accept them, says Wilson.

“This was partly because of a lack of education on its benefits, partly because they had tried it 10 years ago and the performance was poor, and partly because they are concerned that it is a competitive technology to their existing PMR business,” he says. “With that being the case, I believe dealers should ensure that their supplier has experience in the marketplace (our supplier, PTTI, have been doing this for 10 years and it is the core focus of their business), so that they have come across and fixed problems that might have existed when the technology was new.”

This is just one of a wide range of different factors that potential purchasers need to consider when they start their search for rugged smartphone devices that they can run PoC applications on. For starters, there can be a big price difference between rugged devices and normal consumer smartphones, which is why it is vital that businesses ensure the device is going to be fit for purpose.

“Companies must therefore consider the environment these will be used in and which device best fits their requirements,” advises Richard Smith, regional manager at SOTI. “For example, if a device is set to be used predominantly in a mainstream office environment, installing PoC applications on a traditional smartphone should suffice and would keep costs down. However, if the device is being used in a construction environment, for example, rugged is the only option due to the increased likelihood of damage and the resultant downtime.”

Another factor that needs to be taken into account is whether their chosen PTT solution is fully compatible with their rugged device and, if the purchaser hasn’t yet made a final decision on their PTT solution, whether the rugged device they are eyeing up works best with a particular solution.

The key advantages of selecting a device and then selecting a PoC solution is it gives you “greater freedom to find and test a PTT service that delivers the right features, quality of service, after-sales support, etc,” says Tim Shepherd, director of applications and market intelligence at Cat. Device (or potentially carrier) ‘agnosticism’ also gives users “greater freedom to grow or expand the solution onto other, potentially different, hardware – or, equally, the freedom to replace either the devices or solution if one part is found wanting”, adds Shepherd.

Opting for a device with pre-integrated PoC also has its advantages as you are guaranteed full compatibility between hardware and software, plus you may be able to get a discount or deal by opting for a pre-packaged solution. For users on a tight budget, this latter point could be crucial because, Smith says, rugged devices with pre-installed PoC can cost upwards of £1,000 each. However, Land Mobile is aware of such devices retailing for around £290-£320, with a £70/year/device licence fee for the PoC service and a £70/year fee for the PoC system’s dispatching service.

Smith notes that unruggedised smartphones, which can then be enhanced with business-critical applications can be the most cost-effective choice. However, “...if the devices are being used in an environment where damage is likely, businesses may be best placed opting for rugged devices as the cost of replacing smartphones will soon add up.”

Beyond compatibility issues, other key considerations relate to whether there is a dedicated or programmable key that can be used for PTT, and the volume output of the devices.

“Both of these factors can impact the quality of experience,” says Shepherd. “Cat rugged smartphones all include programmable keys that can be purposed for PTT, and deliver loud audio for noisy environments.”

Reliability is also an important factor that businesses seek from their rugged device. Smith says: “In a world where business mobility is key, businesses can’t afford to suffer from device downtime. Some 49 per cent of mobile workers state malfunctioning devices seriously hinder their ability to work, while 54 per cent fear this will negatively impact upon customer relationships. Suppliers must offer either an on-site IT team to resolve issues, or a next-day swap system to ensure downtime is kept to an absolute minimum.”

If devices for PTT are being deployed as part of an enterprise roll-out, then enterprise mobility management (EMM) or mobile device management (MDM) solutions are vitally important.

“Security is always an important factor, and the ability to implement user policies and ensure devices can be wiped if lost or stolen, for example, should be prioritised,” says Shepherd. “But the added ability to provision multiple devices, to push device or solution updates, and to ensure the required software is present on each device, are crucial.”

It’s a view shared by Robert Green, marketing manager at Hytera. “Enterprise-level device management applications are critical to ensure you have complete control over the fleet,” says Green. “Careful consideration to the user requirement and device control is key. With end-users naturally looking to bring some of their consumer data habits into the workplace, it’s important that we can control applications and the user interface, but also remain flexible to the possibilities that enterprise applications can deliver. Being able to push updates, approved applications and manage your users across the fleet remotely is critical to ensure the operation gets the best out of the devices and their users.”

With GDPR set to “change the shape of business mobility” when it is introduced in May 2018, businesses can’t afford to compromise in this area – they have to have the ability to remotely manage all of their devices, according to Smith.

“After all, once legislation arrives, if one device is lost, the business may be hit by fines of €20m – a sum that could cripple even the largest of enterprises,” he says. “Once the support services are in place, any misplaced devices can be remotely wiped and fully encrypted to ensure data remains secure and GDPR protocols are not breached. It gives both the supplier and their customers complete peace of mind.”

Rugged smartphone customers also need peace of mind that a device can withstand all manner of knocks and drops. When it comes to hardware, there isn’t a great deal to choose between devices, with most offering similar robustness, IP ratings, etc.

Given the number of cheap imports flooding the UK market from overseas, businesses should always check that their rugged device has undergone the appropriate European safety compliance testing, advises John Swarbrick, Andromeda’s managing director.

“It’s an area that certainly lacks glamour, but it’s something that is often overlooked,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of low-cost, imported Chinese devices and I think that’s brilliant because it’s stimulating the market, but what a lot of people don’t realise is some of these lower-cost devices haven’t had a lot of the mandatory CE safety testing.”

Form factor is important to some users because there are some environments in which traditional smartphones would look completely out of place. “I think there are certainly contexts in which it would look unprofessional – or, at least, poorly equipped – if a workforce were equipped with iPhones or mass-market handsets, particularly if they had broken screens or otherwise damaged hardware, due to the working environment being tough on mobile devices,” says Shepherd.

However, as Green points out, looking unprofessional is one thing, operating unprofessionally with a device that isn’t fit for purpose is far more important when safety and security are at stake.

“We believe our users in challenging working environments are looking for the professional robust nature and form factor of the radio handset with the UI and capability of a smartphone,” says Green. “Combining a mil-spec, IP67-rated rugged terminal with a specially developed Gorilla Glass shatter-resistant touchscreen, which can even be operated with gloves, ensures that our multi-mode advanced radio customers can have every confidence in the device performing in tough conditions.”

For many users, device longevity is a priority, and this isn’t just about robustness – it also covers the issue of manufacturers releasing new versions of devices that make some older models obsolete, which can be frustrating, and costly, for end-users.

“When we talk about things in the two-way radio world, devices have a longevity of at least three years and many of them five years,” says Swarbrick. “In that lifetime they’re supported, they can be repaired and they’re functional. In the smartphone world, you’re doing well if you get 18 months before that device reaches end of life. It’s vitally important when people procure these devices that they’re going to be around for at least two years, if not three, or ideally longer, so that they don’t end up having an estate of devices that are all different.”

Ultimately, the hardware and software that will be selected boils down to total cost of ownership and how the device will be used, says Shepherd.

“Having a device that is fit for purpose in a working environment can often save money, time and resources due to fewer hardware failures or damages, and can therefore improve efficiencies,” he adds. “It’s all about the context in which devices are being deployed.”

Hybrid LTE-DMR devices versus traditional rugged smartphones
Although PoC is increasingly gaining traction in the market, some users prefer hybrid LTE-DMR devices and there are some environments in which opting for the latter makes sense.

“Depending on what is required, there could be contexts in which a hybrid LTE-DMR device dedicated chiefly to radio comms could be a more appropriate purchase – they might offer larger PTT keys, for instance,” says Cat’s Tim Shepherd.

Syndico’s Andrew Wilson agrees. He says that the major benefit of using a hybrid LTE-DMR handset such as the Hytera PDC760 is you can have the best of both worlds.

“For example, in a building you could have the system working on DMR through the handsets but with the PoC solution as a back-up if, for some reason, the DMR system failed,” explains Wilson. “In addition to this, end-users would have the flexibility to use the handset as a standard ruggedised mobile phone when they were away from the building’s DMR coverage, so would only need one handset for both applications.”

Do check that you can run your chosen PoC solution on your hardware of choice. Devices with pre-integrated PoC are sometimes the best option.

The main dos and don’ts of buying PoC devices

  • Do make sure you run enterprise mobility management applications across your fleet of devices.
  • Do look into the LTE coverage in the areas you’re looking to use the device in and make sure you’re using the best network(s) available.
  • Don’t opt for a standard consumer smartphone if you’re going to use the device in a rugged environment. You may save money in the short term, but more often than not it proves costly in the longer term as you may need to regularly repair or replace damaged devices.
  • Do choose a PoC service that's OMA PoC compliant.
  • Don’t forget that PoC services rely on commercial and unhardened mobile networks. If you need the system to stay up during a widespread and long-duration power cut, then a hybrid LTE-DMR or standard two-way radio system may be more appropriate, depending on your budget and need for wide-area coverage.
  • Don’t rush into making a decision. There are a wide range of PoC options on the market at the moment so shop around and make sure you find a rugged device that is fit for purpose.




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