MWC 2012: Sonim launches HSPA push-to-talk rugged mobile phone

Interview: Sanjay Jhawar, VP Marketing and R&D and General Manager of Applications at Sonim reveals the secrets behind its new push-to-talk 3G mobile phone that rivals PMR terminals in performance and applications

MWC 2012: Sonim launches HSPA push-to-talk rugged mobile phone

Sonim's latest rugged device is an HSPA mobile phone with push-to-talk (PTT) capability all rolled into one. Bell Mobility in Canada is to launch the device in April as the Sonim XP5520 Bolt.
Speaking to Wireless at Mobile World Congress 2012 Sanjay Jhawar, VP Marketing and R&D and General Manager of Applications at Sonim, says: ‘We think it is a very attractive solution for commercial users of PMR (Professional Mobile Radio) and LMR (Land Mobile Radio). We are going after utilities, security, construction companies and other commercial segments.

‘We don’t think it is a public safety solution, as the phone runs on commercial mobile networks, but a lot of police carry mobiles as back up and we think it would be very good for that,’ continues Jhawar. ‘What we provide is enterprise grade products rather than consumer grade ones and the solution we are offering for commercial PMR users with this phone is much more complete than it ever was before.’

Alternative to PMR/LMR
The Sonim XP5520 can do both group and one-to-one calls and has an audio level comparable to PMR (which can be further enhanced by adding a larger speaker). It also comes with Sonim’s usual ruggedness, strength and waterproofing performance capabilities. The company’s three-year warranty covers repair or replacement and includes accidental damage (but not deliberate abuse). It is also NFC enabled for workforce management services (security guards, maintenance and facilies management staff can use the phone with NFC tags to show they have done their rounds or completed their work).

Jhawar explains that its new generation PTT is a big step up on previous GSM models.’ With the previous generation of PTT technology you’d have a 4-10 second initial call set up time, which was too far away from the performance people expected from PMR radios to be viable. But using HSPA, the latency on the phone is less than one second for call set up time and 0.7 seconds for volley time. This next generation technology is Sim-based, packet switched, and not circuit switched - hence the better performance.’
Jhawar says that performance compares very favourably with current performance of PTT devices on the iDEN networks in the US and Canada and it comes within spitting distance of the performance on TETRA terminals. But it is an HSPA PTT solution using Kodiak Networks (an infrastructure company, which sells PTT consumer platforms to mobile operators) in Texas as client and server, says Jhawar.

American market
He adds that the phone was designed initially for the American market, where it has to compete with LMR and iDEN (Integrated Digital Enhanced Network) – a standard developed by Motorola that combines the benefits of trunked radio and cellular phones, which is principally used in North and Latin America.

Sonim believes the new PTT phone provides a very comparable performance with the TETRA radio standard and: ‘It is better in many ways than the iDEN technology people are used to in North America, so we think it is a viable solution for commercial users as a replacement technology.’
He says that Kodiak Networks is likely to go to its existing mobile operator customers in the USA and see if they want to upgrade to the HSPA PTT technology. Bell is a new customer though.

Latin America countries are not on packet switch yet, according to Jhawar. ‘The price of handsets is more important there at the moment and they have spectrum issues, especially on 3G. Latin America will probably go for it in two to three years, but North America is going for the packet switch version this year,’ says Jhawar.
He points out that US mobile operator Sprint has already announced it is closing its NexTel iDEN network and reusing the spectrum to enhance its CDMA offering. In addition, Motorola Mobility was the main provider of iDEN handsets and now it is owned by Google its attention will be concentrated on the Android platform, so it is unlikely there will be much continued investment in iDEN handsets.
‘The result of that is that those iDEN customers in the US, Canada and to a lesser extent in Latin America are in play again,’ points out Jhawar. ‘Europe never had a NexTel or an iDEN network, so there is a different dynamic there.’
European market
Jhawar says: ‘Our goal in business development, having got US networks on board, is to persuade European operators to go after the HSPA PTT solution. We don’t have a European operator selling or hosting the PTT phone yet, but we hope we’ll get a network operator on board in the next six to nine months. Our customers in Europe include Securitas, G4S and Shell, not for the PTT phone yet, but for our dedicated lone worker devices.’
There are several ways a mobile operator can offer a PTT service using the Sonim XP5520 series. The operator can own and host the PTT server in their own network and offer the service and handsets. Bell Mobility in Canada and AT&T in the USA are doing this by just buying the service from Kodiak Networks.
Or, the PTT service is hosted outside, but white labeled to the operator who sells it and pays the host on a recurring per user basis. A third option is the over the top (OTT) model, where the service is both hosted outside and sold by someone else. The mobile operator just provides a data connection from the network.
‘The OTT option is the least attractive one for us,’ says Jhawar, ‘as we believe the handsets need to be subsidised. You want to put together a tariff specific to the PTT service, rather than buy a data plan and run the applications. It ought to be possible to have a data plan appropriate to the usage – PTT doesn’t use a lot so of data - so you don’t want to be paying for the size of data allowance you get in smartphone data tariff plans.
Sonim is happy to take either route, as there are some customers who prefer an OTT application, but it thinks it is better if the network gets behind it because the operator can then support, market and sell it.
Yet another alternative model is for an MVNO to purchase wholesale data by the megabyte; package it at less than a typical smartphone data plan, as you won’t use as much data, and offer a service at a lower price than a typical smartphone data tariff.
Sonim’s view is that commercial customers will be interested in a PTT device that is more rugged than a private mobile radio, smaller, cheaper and with a broadly equivalent PTT performance to PMR, as long as a private network is not required. ‘It has high-speed data, lone worker applications, tracking and NFC. It’s an all in one workforce management tool and we have intrinsically safe phones too,’ says Jhawar.
Intrinsically safe options
He says that not every customer uses all Sonim’s applications. Shell, for example, uses Sonim’s intrinsically safe mobile phones. ‘We are the largest supplier of GSM Atex phones worldwide,’ says Jhawar, ‘so potentially we can offer PMR customers an alternative. Intrinsically safe is an important part of that equation, but it is the most advanced and most rugged lone worker phone. It is far in advance of any PMR terminal on that score.’
He reports that Kodiak Networks is working on a gateway to enable PMR systems and Sonim’s PTT phone to communicate. US carrier AT&T recently announced a trial with Kodiak where it will do a soft launch of the PTT service. Part of that involves a P25 [the US radio standard used by first responders) interoperability and radio dispatch service at a network/gateway level.
‘I don’t think we have a TETRA interoperability gateway yet, but once the PTT service is available in Europe it would make sense for Kodiak to do that. It’s not our prime target though, we are after commercial users,’ reiterates Jhawar.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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