Vice-president, corporate communications, TELUS Mobility

It’s a space where the main players – Telus Mobility and Bell Mobility – are competitors at one level and collaborators at another.

But that’s only one of the paradoxes of the Push-to-Talk (PTT) market in Canada.

Yet another is that Telus’ high-powered promotional campaign for its consumer PTT service (Instant Talk) may actually aid and abet the sales of its business offering (Mike Direct Connect). That, at least, is what the company is counting on. Mark Langton, vice-president of corporate communications at Scarborough, Ont.-based Telus Mobility said as much in a recent interview with IT World Canada.

The marketing campaign for Instant Talk, he predicted, is likely to spark the interest of several small businesses and power users. “We can steer some of these [potential] users towards Mike because of rate plans, and even broader product selection.”

PTT – technology that allows you to use your cell phone as a wireless walkie-talkie and communicate instantly with others with the push of a button and without long-distance charges – has been available in Canada for many years.

However, while south of the border the players are many and the competition fierce, in Canada the situation was different – until very recently.

For nearly a decade, Telus Mobility was the lone player in the Canadian PTT market and its Mike Direct Connect the only offering in this space. This January, Telus made forays into the Canadian consumer and small business market with the launch of Instant Talk – a PTT service operating on the company’s national PCS digital wireless network. At the time of its launch, Instant Talk was Canada’s only PCS-PTT offering. But that situation didn’t last long. Four months later, in April of this year, Bell Mobility leapfrogged into the fray with “10-4” – a PTT offering also targeted at the same segment: small businesses and consumers.

Langton doesn’t see Bell’s entry as a threat to Telus hegemony. With wireless in general, I’ve consistently found that more competition and more choice leads to greater penetration…and greater acceptance of all carriers’ products.Mark Langton>Text

His reasoning: competition will almost certainly drive wider adoption of PTT and, in the long run, this will be a win-win situation for everyone – carriers and customers. “With wireless in general, I’ve consistently found that more competition and more choice leads to greater penetration…and greater acceptance of all carriers’ products.” Significantly, while Telus Mobility and Bell Mobility are rivals in the PTT space – at another level they have also forged a partnership of convenience.

For instance, Langton noted that in Eastern Canada Telus’ network exits mainly in major cities. “So in remote locations we have a roaming and resale deal that enables us to roam on Bell’s network.” The exact opposite is true in western Canada, he said, where Bell roams on the Telus network in rural and remote areas, but in big cities has its own network.

Langton believes all the vigorous marketing currently going on in this space will create a win-win situation for all the carriers. He refutes the view that a company’s marketing drives business only to itself. “My experience is marketing on wireless products grows the whole market.”

Maybe so. But savvy marketing alone is unlikely do the trick for either of the players.

Product features, packaging, and price – not necessarily in that order – are key success factors, according to Roberta Fox, senior partner at Fox Group, a telecommunications consulting firm in Markham, Ont.

Marketshare, she said will be determined by real benefits users see in the technology, and there Telus Mobility has an advantage with its long experience in PTT and the fact that Canadian businesses are familiar with its offerings.

Fox recalls the time in the mid-90s when she personally used Telus’ Mike product to connect with several co-workers simultaneously. “I could do a ‘Call All’ and get my whole team. You can’t accomplish that on a cell network, which only permits three-way calling, and even that is very expensive.”

She said the multi-call capability – whether for consumers or businesses – is one of the “best features” of Mike Direct Connect. Fox said her team used Mike for project management and dispatch with some great results. “It also works subterranean, and has a great frequency penetration.”

In the PCS-PTT space, Bell’s ’10-4′ service does offer conference call capabilities (up to five subscribers can speak with each other at one time, anywhere across the Bell Mobility IX digital network, or on the Sprint network in the U.S). This feature is not yet available to users of Telus’ Instant Talk. It’s something Telus may also offer in future, Langton said. “We just have the capability; we just have to turn it on.”

Why hasn’t Telus done that yet? According to Langton, it’s to encourage small businesses and individuals who need group conference capabilities to “move a notch higher” and opt for Mike. “My understanding of PCS-PTT [is] it’s a fine product, but light duty – certainly not as robust as Mike…if you are a heavy group user I would drive you towards Mike.” With Mike, he said, there are no limits on the size of the group or the capacity to grow a group.

Langton said Instant Talk and 10-4 are very similar offerings. “Coverage in Canada virtually identical, but we’re a little stronger in the U.S. because of Verizon’s reach.” In terms of actual devices, he said Telus Mobility offers more choice. (The company currently has four products in the PCS-PTT space – the Motorola V65p, LG 4750, Kyocera KX440 and KX440Y – the yellow version of the KX440). Bell so far has just one: Sanyo 7300 u.

Telus’ experience in this field is its greatest asset, according to Langton. “We’ve been doing PTT since 1996, so we know the market, what rate plans [and] what products work best.”

But Fox believes current rate plans and pricing will have to change quite a bit for the Canadian market to really warm to this technology. For instance, she said inflexible pricing plans – like making subscribers pay separately for PTT on top of regular PCS charges and denying PTT capabilities to Pay as You Talk users – will have to change for market penetration to grow significantly. According to Langton, the growth of PTT in Canada over the past few years has not just been numerical. There’s also been an expansion in the nature and types of businesses and consumers adopting the service.

He said up to the late 1990s, PTT was the bailiwick of the blue and grey collar market. At the time, he said, two-way radio was viewed as the working man’s tool – and field workers would have a wireless phone, a two-way radio, and sometimes even a pager on their belt. “Our initial marketing [pitch] for Mike was “tired of your pants falling down” because of several devices on your belt?” That’s all changed, the Telus executive said. He said as multiple capabilities – PTT, cell phone, messaging, e-mail, mobile Internet browsing – got integrated into one device and as form factors became smaller and features richer – adoption in the “white collar” market rose dram