VoIP Meets Push-to-Talk

Harris Corp. launches IP-based BeOn solution – inherently more open, flexible, and available than private P2T systems.

By Adam Stone | Posted Aug 16, 2010
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In the world of push-to-talk connectivity, Nextel’s Direct Connect is the elephant in the living room, enjoying vast market share by delivering instant communications over a dedicated cellular network.

Now Harris Corporation has stepped into the ring with what it says is a major differentiator. Harris’ BeOn push-to-talk solution runs over VoIP.

"Until now push-to-talk was a local service. Whether you have 6 towers or 600 towers, you were still stuck on that private system," said John Vaughan, senior president of global marketing for public safety and professional communications at Harris. Working through ubiquitous IP, BeOn is inherently more open, flexible, and available, he said.

BeOn’s features will be familiar to push-to-talk users. These include group calling, individual calling, group scanning, distress calls, and dispatch/administrative services. It will run on smartphones (as yet unnamed), and Harris also is developing its own phone to support the service.

BeOn will be sold to carriers, with key end users including emergency departments, first responders, utilities, transportation businesses, corporations with a widespread workforce and government agencies with field operations, Vaughan said.

Users of BeOn will be able to connect to individuals or to a talk group with one button. The solution uses VoIP over 3G and 4G networks, using Harris’s VIDA (Voice, Interoperability, Data, and Access) IP platform, which currently is deployed by public safety users.

Harris already has a strong presence in the sectors that make up BeOn’s target market. It produces technology for the defense industry, diverse federal agencies, and, more recently, emergency communications users within public safety organizations.

In bringing VoIP to the push-to-talk realm, Vaughan said, the company is following a logical, if not widely recognized, path.

"When you say VoIP today, everybody jumps automatically to telephone. But VoIP can be more than just telephone, and that includes push-to-talk," he said. In fact, there may be a natural fit. "Push-to-talk is in some ways easier to do than telephony. With push-to-talk, the system starts collecting your voice, turning it into packets and sending out those packets. When you release the button it stops."

It’s one-way communication, bundled into convenient increments, unlike traditional voice communications, which are simultaneous and two-way. "This is one way, it’s simple and it’s instantaneous. You don’t’ dial. You push, and everybody in your talk group hears you," he said.

Thanks to the reach of IP, they don’t just hear you locally but also globally. A talk group linked by VoIP can literally connect around the world at the push of a button. That has implications not just for the military, but also for corporations looking to expand their reach.

"They are building their business internationally, but they don’t necessarily have a communication system that goes along with that," Vaughan said. VoIP push-to-talk can be the mechanism that bridges that gap.

The commonality of IP also can help overcome the much-lamented issue of interoperability among emergency agencies. For more than a decade lawmakers and others have been calling for a means to tear down the proprietary silos that keep different emergency responder organizations from communicating with one another in times of crisis.

If all had a shared IP-based platform, Vaughan said, it would be a small matter to organize an authentication scheme that would bring all players into a relevant call group for communications on the scene.

"We have spoken long and loud as advocates for using IP as the path to interoperability," he said. "If it’s all IP, there is no interoperability problem at all."

That may be so, but it still will take some effort to bring VoIP push-to-talk to the first-responder market, a contingent traditionally wary of new technologies and approaches.

Vaughan said regulatory changes may help drive acceptance. He noted that the FCC is poised to designate broadband spectra for use by public safety, likely within the next few years. Agencies’ private control of those spectra may ease concerns about security and reliability.

"They can put on their private broadband the same voice they have on their private narrow band systems, and support the same talk groups on both," Vaughan said.

Given that possibility, and given need for solutions that allow for broad interoperability, Vaughan suggested, VoIP may well be the logical medium for push-to-talk solutions.

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