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Consumer push-to-talk: Does anyone really care ‘where you at?’

Sprint is pinning its push-to-talk ambitions on CDMA, but it may be too late to make a difference

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With Sprint’s impending nationwide rollout of push-to-talk over its CDMA network, the third largest wireless carrier is hoping to expand upon what was once an extremely loyal Nextel following, adding consumer and general business users to Nextel’s core clientele of blue-collar subscribers. But not everyone is convinced that the technology will even be noticed.

PTT’s most adamant supporters, primarily field workers and emergency personnel, as well as the few consumers it did attract, have already moved on, according to David Chamberlain, principal wireless analyst at In-Stat. Chamberlain said that in Nextel’s golden age, people loved the network, and the carrier, singularly focused on PTT, owned the space. That is, until they decided to target the consumer market as well. Adding non-workers to the subscriber base ultimately damaged the brand, he said. In a year-over-year survey that InStat conducts on consumer use of handset applications, PTT was the only category out of six that declined between 2006 and 2007. Although the results for 2008 aren’t yet in, Chamberlain believes the ’06 to ’07 decline of 17.5% indicates that a lot of the early adopters and business users gave up on the technology when the influx of SMS text messaging posed a better solution.

“They took a terrific application and chased off their best and most loyal customers,” Chamberlain said. “In the meantime, while we had this staggering Nextel presence in the US, we’ve had text messaging absolutely take off. A lot of it was there are a lot of similarities in a PTT conversation and text message conversation. The main difference is you are not bugging everyone with the ‘beep, beep’ when you push the button.”

Simultaneous with Verizon ramping up its PTT for summer deployment, Sprint is using Qualcomm’s QChat technology to extend PTT over its CDMA network in addition to Nextel’s iDEN network. Motorola has been the long-time provider of PTT technology over iDEN with Nextel, which Chamberlain said has always filled the enterprise need extremely well and often without a public network. Yet even Motorola, which has built the largest PTT network in the world, is not convinced that PTT over CDMA (or any network) will have a significant effect on the consumer market, according to Peter Aloumanis, vice president of Motorola’s iDEN sales and services.

“In the case of PTT, in my opinion, there are certainly a fixed number of people within the US that find this service and capability exciting and relevant for their lives,” Aloumanis said. “It is not something that has mass-market appeal. I don’t ever envision a situation where 200 million people use push-to-talk.”

The reasons for this, he said, are that it is a learned behavior. Consumers would have to be comfortable pushing a button, talking into the phone and having their voice blare out of a loud speaker on the other end. Aloumanis said that 99% of current PTT users never shut their device off. And with 97% of users in the industrial trades and emergency fields, consumer-oriented features Sprint hopes to add with Qchat like presence do not factor into the equation.

“The real strength of what Nextel had in the US you couldn’t measure in speed or bits per second or coverage,” Chamberlain said. “The real benefit was that you had so many people that needed to talk to each other that were able to. If you’re building a house and you’re the contractor, beep, beep, here’s the plumber, the landscaper, the roofer.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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