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Integrating Radio and Push-to-Talk Into Unified Communications


by Russell Bennett, UC Insights

July, 2011

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A key value proposition of unified communications (UC) is the integration of a range of disparate communications “silos” into a single coherent system that reduces communications ‘friction’, i.e. not being able to reach the people with whom you need to communicate. Of the various technologies currently in use in business communications, the ones that are least well integrated are two-way radios and Push to Talk (PTT) cellular devices. This is actually a glaring oversight as these devices are used by mobile staff that are often at the cutting edge of operations or customer contact.

Can’t Mobile Staff Just Use Cellular Phones?

The mobile/cellular phone is ubiquitous in everyday life – so it is reasonable to ask why a mobile worker doesn’t use a cell phone, instead of a device that is difficult to integrate into a telephony and UC network. Yet in nearly every organization there are groups of users who employ a radio or PTT device in a business capacity, so there must be a good reason for this.

Mainstream radio/PTT users are very team and task centric – their communications needs include:

  1. Immediacy – mainstream radio users (e.g. firefighters) are usually fully engaged in the task at hand, so the notion of pausing to look up a number and dial is out of the question.

  2. Availability – the types of scenario where radio excels means that radio users have a low tolerance for dropped calls or ‘no signal’ – common experiences for the cellular user.

  3. Broadcast communications – radio usage is most beneficial when everyone in a certain group or team might need to hear all messages (e.g. ‘Customer in aisle 5 needs assistance.’)

Clearly, PTT cellular networks such as the Sprint (formerly Nextel) Direct Connect service have replaced some traditional radio usage. However, like conventional cellular networks, most PTT services have limitations in that they operate within a relatively short range of a fixed communications tower, rendering them unusable in some situations:

  • Operations in locations that may be outside the coverage of the supporting cellular networks, e.g. forestry operations.

  • Where the range of communications is great, possibly extending beyond the coverage of a single PTT network provider, and the communicators may be moving at considerable speed, e.g. aircraft communications, marine communications, military operations.

  • In certain transient high density usage situations where cellular networks may be overwhelmed, e.g. sports stadiums, major emergencies and other significant events where many people in a relatively small area are trying to communicate all at once.

The unique attributes and requirements of these types of scenarios make two-way radio communications indispensable for the following user groups:

  • Emergency services, e.g. Police, Fire, Ambulance, Rescue

  • Site security, national security and military operations

  • Field mobile technicians, e.g. installation, repair and utility workers

  • Commercial transportation, e.g. trucking, taxis, trains, buses, airports and seaports

  • Event management and hospitality

  • Logistics, warehousing and retail, i.e. where staff operate over a wide physical area

  • Construction and maintenance

The Business Case for Radio & UC Integration

So, if mobile users have always been happy with the communications networks that they use, why do we need to integrate them now? The answer is that the business case has always existed, but the technology did not. Let’s take a look at the business case first.

In terms of communications systems, there are probably 3 types of user in any organization:

  • The office-based employee – likely to be an early candidate for UC deployment

  • The mobile employee – will use a mobile phone, PTT device or a two way radio

  • The hybrid employee – someone who has a desk and mobile responsibilities – supervisors of mobile teams would be included in this category

The advantages of seamlessly integrating the communications capabilities of office staff and mobile staff are numerous:

  • Provide always-on, real-time communications for groups and teams in every-day and situational scenarios

  • Eliminate communications bottlenecks and opportunities for misunderstanding emanating from the relaying of messages

  • Improve response time and customer satisfaction by connecting customer-facing staff with mobile staff

  • Increase the operational efficiency and economic utility of expensive and scarce mobile assets

  • Reduce communications costs by eliminating toll-based network usage

In a crisis management situation, it is often teams of mobile staff that are at ‘the sharp end’, while more senior management is necessarily drawn into the management of the crisis and require communications access to their mobile teams.

UC-Radio Integration: Functional Requirements

The increasing use of software-based communications has created the flexibility to address certain integration challenges that are difficult to implement in hardware based systems and with traditional ‘desk set’ telephones. If the ‘magic of software’ has brought us the integration of voice, video, IM and data collaboration, then what is required to integrate radio and PTT systems?

As discussed, one of the attributes of two-way radios and PTT devices is the broadcast mode of communication – also referred to as ‘half-duplex’ mode, i.e. only one person can speak at once. UC systems, like traditional telephony, are ‘full-duplex’, i.e. everyone can speak at once. Integrating a full duplex system with a half-duplex system is addressed via the use of ‘floor control’; however, floor control and a ‘push to talk’ key are not currently a feature of most UC systems.

Most organizations that use PTT/radio systems use many types of radio, or have different teams operating on different frequencies. There are often ongoing or situational requirements for staff to be aware of discussions happening on multiple networks, therefore full advantage of UC/mobile integration requires a system that can be dynamically integrate the various radio networks with each other. Additionally, supervisory staff that use multiple radio networks would benefit from a single mobile device that can access all networks and the UC network simultaneously.

Twisted Pair Solutions has recently announced the general availability of the WAVE® Communicator for Microsoft® Lync™ solution that integrates users of the market leading UC solution with all the radio and PTT technologies that are used by mobile staff. Floor control is facilitated on the Lync Communicator application by adding a ‘push to talk key’. Other features include a VoIP client for the major mobile phone platforms that allow mobile supervisors to seamlessly integrate with the Lync and radio networks. An expansion of the themes of this paper, including a full explanation of the solution and its powerful business case can be found in a new white paper: “The Compelling Case for Twisted Pair’s WAVE® Communicator for Microsoft® Lync™”.

Conclusion

For those deploying Microsoft Lync alongside traditional radio and PTT networks, WAVE Communicator for Microsoft Lync is a key enabler that exponentially increases the value of both premises-based and mobile communication networks. Return on investment will be rapidly achieved in day-to-day operations via the optimization of communications channels and the increased utilization of key mobile assets. Furthermore, any organization that is required to respond to unforeseen eventualities will easily be able to measure the value of the combination of WAVE and Lync in time and money saved, opportunities preserved, customers retained, resources conserved and capital investments protected.

This paper was sponsored by Twisted Pair Solutions.


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