Cheap Talk

by Rivka Tadjer

Two-way-radio-cell-phone combos can save businesses a bundleWhat if there were a bank robbery in progress and the police dispatcher had to dial a cell phone and then wait that long, pregnant pause before the connection kicked in, just to reach an officer in the vicinity? And what if they had to pay per-minute charges for each call?

To avoid the potential problem, police use a walkie-talkie-style, closed-network phone system ­ where only their people are on the network and where any one of those people can break in and have instant access to anyone or everyone in the group. And one monthly fee covers unlimited two-way communications. So, if businesses have the same need for constant, time-critical communication between co-workers, why can’t they have access to the same technological efficiency as the cops?

They can. Philip Ruesch, co-owner of Canvas Films, a TV and film production company in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., uses iDEN (Integrated Digital Enhanced Network) phones, a two-way wireless radio and cell phone system from Motorola, to talk to crew members when he is on location.

These gadgets work just like walkie-talkies, so each person on Ruesch’s private network group needs the same phone. They also function as traditional cell phones, so the crew can dial any phone number anywhere. Users just push the walkie-talkie button when they want to call one another on location (or close by). The difference is that the walkie-talkie call is free, and it connects in less than one second. It’s like having a private phone network as a feature within the public cell phone service. (Caveat: We use the term “private” loosely here ­ these phones don’t provide better security. In fact, radio frequencies are extremely vulnerable to attack.)

“If someone is down at the truck but could be on their way back at any second, and I remember I need something I forgot to tell the person to bring back, I just push the button on the phone, connect, and say what I need,” says Ruesch. “I do that walkie-talkie lingo ­ say ‘over and out’ or something ­ and then I let go of the button, wait to hear the ‘roger’ response, and we’re done.”

Sometimes, if Ruesch and his partner will be in different places for the day, they’ll each take one of the phones and communicate with the walkie-talkie service ­ called DirectConnect at Nextel ­ because it’s cheaper.

“We talk all day,” says Ruesch, “and constant long distance calls on the regular cell service are expensive.”

The catch is that, to date, the walkie-talkie service element is still regional. Wherever one purchases service ­ in Ruesch’s case, Ft. Lauderdale ­ that’s where users can expect the DirectConnect to reach. “But the range is pretty good,” says Ruesch. “We did a test from Key West to Jacksonville, and it worked. So did from [Ft. Lauderdale] to Orlando.”

Given that Motorola and Nextel have huge headquarters in the South, this may be exceptional range. But wireless-communications analysts testify that generally the range for walkie-talkie service is pretty good.

“I’ve used it from 20, 30, and 40 miles away with the Nextel service ­ and it’s good. It connects within half a second,” says Philip Redman, program manager for wireless mobile communication at Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston.

“The quality is like a speaker phone, and yes, it garbles sometimes, but so do cell phones,” he says. “If you have workers on a construction site, or are going to a convention, it’s a great way to keep in touch with other people who are there.”

Before you start thinking that the service is completely free, here’s the real deal: Users pay a flat-rate, monthly fee just like with any cell phone service, except that it also comes with unlimited walkie-talkie minutes. All the walkie-talkie calls are free. Ruesch, for instance, pays $95 per month to Nextel for 800 free cell minutes, beeper and voicemail service, and all the walkie-talkie service he wants. Depending on the service available in each local market, monthly rates range from $45 to $150, according to Motorola. Free cell minutes will, of course, vary according to the package purchased.

Redman adds that DirectConnect service should go national in the not-so-distant future, too. “So, then you can be on a sales trip in Los Angeles, and walkie-talkie your office back in New York, free.” On December 1, Motorola inked a deal with Pacific Wireless, so the new service should be available sometime in 2000.

So how can Nextel (or Southern Link or Pacific Wireless) afford to let everyone who drops $200 per phone (of which Motorola gets the lion’s share anyway) talk free everywhere in the U.S.? Well, because sometimes a walkie-talkie conversation just won’t do.

“If you’re going to have long conversations, then use the cell service, because one person talking at a time can be annoying,” says Ruesch.

“Think about using a walkie-talkie: To talk, you push the button and say something. Then you release the button and wait to hear the other person,” he says. “If you start talking at the same time ­ which happens in every normal conversation of any length ­ then you cut each other off.”

Still, there are many cell phones that cost as much as, if not more than, the iDEN that don’t have a walkie-talkie option. The Nextel monthly packages for cell service are very competitive with Sprint, AT&T, GTE, and other providers. Users can simply buy into another service that will be useful sometimes, and that will save them money.

The DirectConnect service works one-on-one, or within groups. In the case of a group call, users push a button on the phone, scroll through a menu, dial several phones at once, and everyone who has the iDEN phone will hear a chirping sound. When they push the button to listen, they have a walkie-talkie conference call.

So far, about 4 million business people have found DirectConnect useful, according to Motorola and Nextel. Southern Link’s market share is still nominal. Wireless analyst Callie Pottorf at International Data Corp. says that in 1998 there were 3.89 million SMR (specialized mobile radio) users, and Nextel holds the bulk of that market. Both the Yankee Group and IDC predict this number will rise steadily over the next few years.

For now, businesses must be in one of 93 of the 100 top city markets serviced by Nextel in order to get the DirectConnect service. And Southern Link has a 120,000-mile range in the southeastern states. Check the Nextel and Southern Link Web sites to see if you’re eligible. And keep an eye out for Pacific Wireless announcements.
Roger. Over and out.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.
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