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Compare Radios to Cellphones

Comparing Two-Way Radio Communications vs. Cellular/Smartphone (Wireless Communications Explained Podcast)

In this episode of the Wireless Communications Explained Podcast, Chas Elliott, President of EMCI Wireless and Mike Humphress, President of Commsult Consulting Solutions will share their thoughts on comparing two-way radio communications versus cellular and smartphone communications. 

Watch the Podcast Interview

Since 2007, Chas has been President of EMCI Wireless (a Motorola channel partner) where he manages day-to-day financial operations and administrative functions of running a Motorola Two-Way Radio Dealer, Motorola Service Shop, and Verizon Wireless cellular retailer.

With 30 years of experience in direct sales, sales management, marketing, business development, and distribution management, Mike Humphress is a recognized innovator in the wireless industry. His employment with Motorola included the positions of Sales Representative, Regional Sales Manager, and Area Business Manager. In addition, he has spent six years in two Motorola dealerships in the capacity of Vice President and General Manager.

Listen to the full episode of the Wireless Communications Explained Podcast to learn about:

  • Converging technologies into a single device
  • Creating awareness for public safety and commercial customers
  • Facilitating across campuses with upgrades and enhancements
  • Finding the right solution for the particular application
  • Looking at fitting in with capital budget or operations expenses
  • Working with benefits of wide-area coverage as well as the functionality of two-way radio

Chas Elliott, President of EMCI Wireless on provided insight on hands-free two-way radios:

“The mobile radio that you would mount, like in a vehicle, is classified as hands-free because it’s fixed–mounted to the vehicle. So it abides by all of the hands-free regulations and rules. And we even have the ability to do push-to-talk buttons on a steering wheel, for example, with a visor microphone so that the user never even has to reach down and grab a microphone or do anything out of the norm. They keep their hands on the wheel, they push the button to push-to-talk, and they’re able to–their audio transmits. And we can do the same thing with hands-free on handheld radios, as well. We have Bluetooth technology that allows for a whole myriad of Bluetooth audio accessories.”

Mike Humphress, President of Commsult Consulting Solutions also shared tips on the value propositions of two-way radios:

“The first one that we always talk about is instantaneous single push-to-talk communication. You don’t have to look at a screen. You don’t have to look up a number; you don’t have to give a voice command to ask for the phone to dial somebody; you just push a button and start talking without ever taking your eyes off the road, without ever taking your eyes off of the work that you’re doing, without whatever the case may be, and that in and of itself probably carries as much value as anything. When you talk about the difference between these two technologies and it’s critical in business. Absolutely critical.”

Lightly Edited Transcript

Joshua Feinberg: Welcome to Wireless Communications Explained. In this episode, we will discuss how to compare two-way radios versus cellular and smartphone communication. In this episode, you’re going to hear from Chas Elliott, President of EMCI Wireless Communications and a Motorola manufacturers rep, and Mike Humphress, President of Commsult Consulting Solutions. Welcome to the podcast, Chas and Mike.

Mike Humphress: Thanks.

Chas Elliott: Thank you.

Difference Between Two-Way Radios and Cell Phone or Smartphones

Joshua Feinberg: So we’ll be talking today all about the differences between two-way communications and cellular and smartphone communications. Because we’ve talked about this quite a few times, and it seems this is a really big question that you get out there in the field when you talk to clients. So Chas, can you kick us off by telling us a little bit about how you answer that most basic question that you’re often getting from prospects and customers and clients out in the field? What is the big difference between two-way radios and cell phones or smartphones?

Chas Elliott: Sure. So I mean, it comes down to several things. I mean, from an economic aspect, some folks look at two-way radio as being more of a capital purchase. You’re looking at a one-time-buy type scenario, and it lasts for seven to ten years or whatever period you need there. And then, from a cellular aspect, they look at the operational expense. It’s not so much capital; they’re looking at an operational expense, $50 a month for that device, or whatever. But from a technology perspective, we help consult with our customers to understand the cellular devices, when they’re most appropriate, and when it’s most appropriate to look at a two-way radio device for safety, security, and several other reasons.

Joshua Feinberg: Does that concern over capital expenditures versus operating expenses come up quite often with IT, or does that only tend to come up more when finance gets looped in?

Chas Elliott: A little bit of both. Some IT folks are used to the software as a service type model–the SaaS models–that’s more and more popular when you look at software. So a lot of people get in the mindset of, Hey, can I pay X amount of dollars a month, and then have a hardware refresh and software enhancements and all these kinds of things in year three or year five, and a number of different scenarios. So it comes up in both scenarios. IT folks keep that in their mind just because they’re used to the SaaS model. Then when it comes to an economic perspective, when finance is looking at it, a lot of times, they’re trying to figure out, does this fit in my capital budget, or would I rather do an operational expense and just plan for that every month.

Joshua Feinberg: Cool. Mike, how about from your perspective? When people ask you about the differences between two-way radios and smartphones or cell phones, how do you typically answer?

Mike Humphress: It comes down to looking at the right tool for the job; it almost always depends specifically on what the application is and what they’re trying to accomplish long-term. I mean, if we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do as salespeople, then that’s being consultative with the client. We’re asking all the right questions, and we’re going to be able to fit the right solution into that particular application. Because the assumption is often that the individual may think they know what the right solution is, they may think they need a smartphone or a cell phone or think they need a radio. Still, when you start peeling it back and looking at it, you get to the true need they have and come up with the right tool for that particular job. And I think that’s the basis of all of it, honestly.

Joshua Feinberg: Is it getting people away from self-diagnosing?

Mike Humphress: Yep.

Chas Elliott: Yes.

Mike Humphress: And making them aware and educating them about what’s out there and the pros and cons of any solution that they may choose.

Evolution of Two-Way Radios

Joshua Feinberg: So another thing this brings to mind, coming at this from a little more of a non-technical perspective, are the two-way radios just walkie-talkies, or have the devices evolved significantly from what people would perceive as something that’s a grown-up version of what they would see the kids running around and playing with?

Mike Humphress: I think you’ve got to go back to figure out what the definition of walkie-talkie was when it was invented. And I think most people are probably not old enough to know this, but if you go back to old movies about World War II. You see that guy running around with that big pack on his back and that large antenna sticking up; when Motorola first came out with the product, it was called a walkie-talkie because the individual could walk and talk on the radio at the same time. And that progressed after that to a handie-talkie, which you held in your hand and talked on. So that terminology became kind of ubiquitous. It became what everybody talked about was a walkie-talkie. It was all things two-way radio, I think. And that was kind of the perception, for a lot–still is.

Joshua Feinberg: And we’ve talked about from time to time, kind of that hybrid model that existed years ago with Nextel, and people were kind of blurring the line between cellular and push-to-talk. Is that something people still talk much about, or is that relegated more towards a business model that didn’t quite click?

Chas Elliott: Certainly people equate–I just wish I could go back to the old days, like with Nextel, it was so simple, right. Whether you were interrupting somebody who was in the grocery store and you were hearing the chirp and listening to somebody else’s conversation or not, that conversation still happens. We still hear from some folks who were looking for that. And the truth is, I mean, today we have LTE-based two-way radios. So at the end of the day, there is a convergence of those technologies available in the marketplace.

Joshua Feinberg (07:04): Do you think that product design ended up trying to more proactively, more deliberately replicate what people felt they were missing when that went away? Is that what the LTE technology was looking to go for?

Chas Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. I think people like the fact that whether you are in Florida or Chicago, or one person in Florida, one person in Chicago, you could talk back and forth, the simple push of a button. And it’s the same way in this scenario. And across the country, you start to see more and more consolidation of centers. We have a number of customers that have operations throughout the United States. They may have one dispatch center, if you will, that’s consolidated in a large metropolitan area. They want to be able to talk all over the country. And so we have to be able to facilitate that need, and I think that’s where the product design came from.

Joshua Feinberg: That makes a lot of sense. So, one of the things I’m curious about is when I pick up my smartphone, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m calling an Android smartphone or an iPhone or some edge case or a landline phone or a VoIP phone; it just works. What about when you’re using two-way radios? Is that something that we need to be concerned about?

Chas Elliott: Yeah, overall, there are different types of systems, but as long as the programming parameters are configured appropriately, and you have the correct tool for the job, as Mike would say, it should be as seamless as being able to talk from your iPhone to Android device. You’ve just got to have the right tools with the correct information inside of them.

Mike Humphress: I think it’s also a situation where that ease of operation and seamlessness across any type of device on cellular is undoubtedly a big plus when that’s the kind of communication that you need. I think, on the other side, having that very well-defined communication group or individuals within a group that you communicate with, and that is exclusively who you talk to, is one of the benefits of a two-way system as well. And again, it just depends on what you need.

Chas Elliott: Yeah. And I think when you start looking at a one-to-many conversation, that’s where the two-way radio starts to excel. If you’re doing a one-to-one conversation for a cell phone, we’ll accomplish a lot of that, but you and I know it would be no big deal to maybe have a three-way call on a cellular phone. But if we decided that we wanted to introduce a fourth person, the whole process breaks down there. So you’ve got to look at it from that standpoint, as well.

Bridging Compatibility Issues

Joshua Feinberg: Yeah. That brings up another thought that I have regarding IT departments dealing with mergers and dealing with acquisitions. I know when you’re working from an emergency management perspective, it probably isn’t that common. Still, it probably could be more common when you’re working more with corporate or enterprise clients. Have you ever had situations where two different entities have significant two-way radio infrastructure investment, and there are compatibility issues that have to be bridged?

Chas Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. We come across that daily. I see it a lot, specifically in the healthcare industry, with expansions and acquisitions there. But yeah, we have technologies that can bridge those two systems in many cases. In other cases, there are upgrades or enhancements that need to be made to facilitate that across multiple campuses.

Joshua Feinberg: So when I think about emergency management and being based in Florida, it’s something that native Floridians and transplanted Floridians have all gotten used to, and hopefully this year will be a mild year, but there have been years like 2004, 2005, where there are a lot of storms to contend with. So from the perspective of following a major storm, a hurricane, what are the considerations for thinking about two-way radios versus cellular communications before, during, and after a major event like that, or thinking through the entire six-month period of the Atlantic storm season?

Mike Humphress: It’s significant; when you think about the fact that we talked earlier about the number of cell sites that went down in a given hurricane and any year you look at it, that happens continuously. They’re completely off the air and out of service. And in many cases, you talk to first responders in particular, and they’ll tell you that they had their two-way radio system and that it continued to function fine, and had they not had that, they would have had no communications at all. And it’s not just hurricanes. I read an article about the wildfires in California and how they took out several cell sites. All of the residents lost their communication, but many of the other people were trying to communicate via cell. So it does have an Achilles heel there when a network goes down, and it knocks everybody off the air.

Joshua Feinberg: Chas, is that something you’ve experienced with many EMCI Wireless customers in the last five to ten years where they’ve had to battle test and go through that scenario?

Chas Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. There’ve been some folks who thought, especially back in the day when Verizon or AT&T or whoever gave away a cell phone for free, you sign up for a two-year agreement, and you get a device for free, and then you pay your monthly recurring costs, but that’s really about it. Now, way back when they would, a number of customers went to that technology. And you look at buildings now with cellular antennas mounted to the side of condos and apartment buildings and all that kind of stuff; they have battery backups that maybe last two hours or so during a power outage. But at the end of the day, there’s no generator up there, there’s no propane tank, and it doesn’t have a thousand gallons of fuel like a lot of hardened, two-way radio facilities do. So when you start to look at that, if the power’s out for more than two hours, the coverage is gone. So we’ve experienced that both with our public safety customers and some commercial customers who have gone that route.

Joshua Feinberg: Just creating awareness around when they’re talking about business continuity, hot sites, cloud storage, and everything else that would typically be in an IT infrastructure.

Chas Elliott: Absolutely.

Joshua Feinberg: Especially this time of year.

Chas Elliott: Especially if you’re in a rural market. So if I’m a cellular carrier and I’m looking at tower sites and which tower sites I am going to bring up–I have all these outages all across the whole state that were damaged by a hurricane. I’m going to prioritize the metropolitan areas before I’m going to look at a rural market. So with your LMR system, you have more control over repairing things and how that works and maintenance agreements. So you have priority access and all of these things. Whereas with the cellular carrier, you kind of just sit back and just wait until they get it up and going.

Joshua Feinberg: Yeah, that’s something I know all too well, being a Floridian and going through storms, is from a utilities perspective when they’re getting hammered on the news that there are a half a million people out, they’re not interested in going to one home in the middle of nowhere and restoring one at a time; they go to a big master plan community where they can bring a thousand homes back up at the same time. Because it looks better– prioritization of resources from an EOC perspective, but also just looks better from a PR perspective and goodwill–after getting mission-critical facilities like hospitals back online. So do you come across many circumstances where prospective customers ever want to talk to you more about when a smartphone or when cellular may be the better choice relative to two-way radios? Does that come up?

Choosing Between Cellular and Two-Way Radios

Mike Humphress: Sure. And there are times, I mean, there are circumstances certainly when we’re talking about business to business types of applications here, or business applications, not consumers or not individuals, but one example that comes to mind immediately would be home builders. They need to talk to multiple different subcontractors on a given job and suppliers, and a two-way radio system really wouldn’t accomplish that. So they have to have some kind of access that gives them communications pathways to all these different people and all these different companies and all these different entities. So that’s one example right there when truly a cell phone or a smartphone would be the better choice.

Joshua Feinberg: Is it a matter that the subcontractors aren’t going to come in and make a significant investment in wireless infrastructure just to work on that particular job site for a couple of days or a couple of weeks and moving they’d end up having to have a half a dozen different devices, right?

Mike Humphress: Yeah, and if you look at a very large construction site where people are going to be on-site for two, three, or four years, they will get on radio systems that collaborate and talk together, and that’s a particular circumstance. But when you’re moving around all over the city, having different houses, going to different locations, with different subcontractors in and out, it’s not functional to try to put together a two-way radio system that would be easy enough for everybody to implement and use. So typically, cell phones would be the answer there.

Joshua Feinberg: Yeah, I think about even in our area in Palm Beach County, seeing all the residential build-outs over the last five or ten years, and you do tend to see the plumbing companies and electrical companies that work for a half a dozen different builders. So they may have a crew that’s on three, four, or five different job sites over the course of a day or a week, so, the scenario of having to have three or four or five different bills and devices or worrying about it getting broken, lost, all that stuff would be unwieldy. So, when people come to you, and look at applications, we have talked about where two-way radio is best, and we have talked about where cellular is best. What’s the typical use case in a commercial application where they’re using both side-by-side–where there’s heavy usage of cellular and smartphone at the same time that there’s two-way radio communication?

Chas Elliott: I think Mike’s scenario that he just used construction, in some cases–if we’re looking at a big on-site operation and they have a hundred employees on-site, they need to be able to communicate on-site with those employees. But at the same time, maybe the foreman of that site needs to communicate with his suppliers to get more windows or doors or whatever it is ordered, being able to call them on a cell phone. I think it makes that very convenient there, but also being able to talk to all of your staff with a one-to-many conversation on the two-way radio, certainly in that application, it makes sense to have both products.

Joshua Feinberg: Is it the third device that’s really the tipping point on all of that, where someone has a personal smartphone, they have a phone from work, and then they also have a two-way radio or are people generally comfortable doing that if they need to?

Chas Elliott: Yeah, it depends. I mean, we’ve seen some people who carry three devices, and I think some people have a work cell phone and then have a two-way radio, but on their work cell phone, they end up downloading Facebook or calling a family member. And then the boss is trying to get ahold of the employee, and they can’t because they’re on the phone, and the boss is going, “Hey, why do I pay every month for this cell phone when I can’t get ahold of anybody on it?” So there’s a lot of that; that certainly goes on, and some of that is certainly the appeal of transitions to two-way radios. When you start to talk about, “I know I can key this up, and I know I’m getting a connect tone and confirmation that my audio is going out to you, why are you not responding?”

Mike Humphress: I think that’s one of the things we always talk about: the two-way radio side of it is 100% a business tool and a business tool only. It cannot be used for anything else, whereas a smartphone or a cell phone because of everything else that it’s capable of doing, it just by virtue of all of that. It’s not just a business tool, and you cannot control how your employees may or may not be using that device, whether you’ve given it to them or whether they use their own. And I know that I had talked to a heating and air conditioning contractor not that many months ago, and he was talking about the fact that Chas mentioned that he was so frustrated. He constantly got voicemail every time he tried to call one of his field technicians, and he couldn’t get through to them, or they just wouldn’t answer. He wasn’t sure what was going on. So he wanted to go back to a two-way radio system. And interestingly enough, one of the better solutions now combines both because you now have a true two-way radio that works on the cellular network as a two-way radio. So you still have the benefits of all the wide-area coverage, but you’ve got the durability and the functionality of two-way radio. So now the lines are really getting blurred out there.

Joshua Feinberg: Do you see a big demand in the market for that continued convergence of collapsing two devices into one?

Mike Humphress: You bet. Absolutely.

Misconceptions About Two-Way Radio Capabilities 

Joshua Feinberg: So the final area I wanted to talk to you about today when it comes to comparing two-way radios to cellular and smartphone communications is, in this context, what’s the biggest misconception that people have about what two-way radios are capable of, what they’re not able to do, and in general, what do you feel is the biggest myth or urban legend that’s out there?

Chas Elliott: Yeah, I think overall it’s the two-way radios are a thing of the past, its basic voice, but you can’t do anything else. We’re certainly to the point now that this is 2021–with a two-way radio, you can have everything from enterprise-grade, Android applications to a built-in scanner, to a built-in camera, being able to stream security camera video feeds to your two-way radio device–all of that, this convergence of all of those technologies into a single device so that your users do not have to carry multiple devices. You do not have to pay for a two-way radio and a cell phone for each one of your staff members.

Mike Humphress: I think there’s a situation where people forget some of the largest value propositions of two-way radio. The first one that we always talk about is instantaneous single push-to-talk communication. You don’t have to look at a screen. You don’t have to look up a number; you don’t have to give a voice command to ask for the phone to dial somebody; you just push a button and start talking without ever taking your eyes off the road, without ever taking your eyes off of the work that you’re doing, without whatever the case may be, and that in and of itself probably carries as much value as anything. When you talk about the difference between these two technologies and it’s critical in business. Absolutely critical.

Joshua Feinberg (22:47): Do you see many people doing hands-free two-way radios for that reason, or are they still primarily using a push-to-talk?

Chas Elliott: Yeah. Actually, the mobile radio that you would mount, like in a vehicle, is classified as hands-free because it’s fixed–mounted to the vehicle. So it abides by all of the hands-free regulations and rules. And we even have the ability to do push-to-talk buttons on a steering wheel, for example, with a visor microphone so that the user never even has to reach down and grab a microphone or do anything out of the norm. They keep their hands on the wheel, they push the button to push-to-talk, and they’re able to–their audio transmits. And we can do the same thing with hands-free on handheld radios, as well. We have Bluetooth technology that allows for a whole myriad of Bluetooth audio accessories.

Joshua Feinberg: So it sounds like, big picture if somebody worked with two-way radios 10 or 15 years ago, and they left that particular job role, and they’re coming back now, they may be oblivious to all the advances in technology in the last ten years. It’s time to get an update.

Mike Humphress: Absolutely.

Joshua Feinberg: That’s terrific. Chas, what’s the best way for someone to learn more about the great work that you do at EMCI Wireless and two-way radios?

Chas Elliott: You can find us online, emciwireless.com, and we also have a website for our wide area push-to-talk solution pttanywhere.com.

Joshua Feinberg: It’s terrific. Well, it’s been great talking with you today to learn more about the differences between two-way radios and cell phone/smartphone communication. You’ve been listening to Chas Elliott from EMCI Wireless and Mike Humphress from Commsult Consulting Solutions. Thanks so much, and enjoy the rest of your day.

Mike Humphress: Thank you, Joshua.