The question arises about whether to use a cellular phone or a two-way radio system. Each type of device was designed for a very different purpose, so what is the difference between the two devices? Why should one use a two-way radio instead of a cellular phone when it seems like a cellular phone can do almost anything you could want in communication? Let’s start with the basics in comparing the two devices.
A cellular phone is designed to be a one-on-one device. It is intended for one person to speak with one other person. The unit is full duplex, meaning that you can talk and listen at the same time, just like you can do on a regular land line telephone. The one person with whom you are speaking can be another cellular phone or it can be someone talking on a land line phone. Many cellular phones allow you to conference another person into the call so you can actually get three people speaking together instead of simply a one to one phone call.
A two-way radio is designed to be a one-to-many device. Although if you only have two radios, it essentially is one-to-one, it can be used from one person to any number of people simultaneously. If you have 5, 10, 20, 100 or 1000 people listening to your transmission, it makes no difference. It is easy to speak to any number of people and for them to talk back to you and others. This is essentially designed for groups of people to speak with each other.
With the advent of cellular technology, many people think that the cellular phone solves all communication problems and that two-way radio was an obsolete way of communicating. If that were true, radio would have essentially disappeared after the proliferation of cellular phones. Radio is flourishing and radio sales have increased every year. There is no question that cellular has had an effect on the two-way radio use and in many ways has taken away a large number of customers of two-way radio and moved them to cellular phones which work well in most circumstances for small groups. However, once you exceed a group of 5 people, the efficiencies of two-way radio begin to overcome the convenience of using cellular phones. There is a significant advantage of getting everyone on board at the same time by speaking on a two-way radio to everyone who is involved at once regarding an issue. Speaking to people one at a time on the same subject is similar to sending an email to one person, then another, then another and so on until everyone is informed on the subject.
Let’s examine a typical towing company using cellular phones. Let’s assume that they have 7 trucks and that the have their employees use their own phones for work. These days, there is hardly anyone who does not have a cellular phone and many people have airtime plans with the cellular provider that provide for unlimited usage of the phone for a modest monthly fee which varies by provider. There are some plans that provide unlimited phone usage for as little as $25 per month while other carriers charge $75-$100 per month. The company may not reimburse the driver for the use of their phone because he already had the phone and it had unlimited use, so it does not cost the driver any more money for the driver to use the phone for company use. (Some drivers may insist upon being reimbursed for a portion of the cost of the phone and it is up to each company to decide how to handle the issue. If one driver insists upon reimbursement, they need to reimburse everyone otherwise it can cause a huge problem with different drivers being treated differently.) When it is time to call a vehicle, one must dial the phone, wait for the phone to start ringing, let the device ring and when no one answers, the call is transferred to voice mail at which time the dispatcher has to leave a message for the driver who may or may not notice the voice mail until it is too late to take care of the customer. This process can easily take 1-2 minutes and if you are not sure which driver you need to speak to for resolving the problem, this process must be repeated until you find the driver that is in the area to take care of the customer’s problem. With 7 drivers, the 1-2 minutes can turn into 7-14 minutes to call every cellular phone from every driver. The time delay to call all the phones can seriously impact customer service, especially when the customer is on the phone and wanting an answer to their questions immediately. A towing customer is typically on the edge already because they have been inconvenienced by having their vehicle break down at an unplanned time, often disrupting their day and causing them severe stress. The towing company that is able to relieve their customer’s stress quickly will have a significant business advantage over the competitor who cannot reach their drivers quickly. It is possible to utilize text messaging in a one to many configuration but replies can quickly overload people that are included in the CCs but not necessarily participating in the conversation. The same can be said for using the cellular phone to send emails.
In comparison to the same situation above but using a two-way radio instead of a cellular phone, the dispatcher presses the Push-To-Talk (PTT) button and calls all the drivers at one time, asking who is in the area of the customer who just called the office so that the dispatcher can get someone to take care of the customer as quickly as possible. This process takes 5-10 seconds at which point the driver who is close to the area responds and lets the dispatcher know that he can handle the call and how long it will take him to arrive at the customer’s location. The dispatcher can now tell the customer how quickly they can respond to handle the call. The time that the dispatcher is tied up with the customer is drastically reduced and now the dispatcher can handle other calls for other customers instead of having to continue calling one driver after another in an attempt to find someone to handle the call.
There are several issues that define the difference between cellular and two-way radio. Some types of two-way radio users find that the efficiency of using radios makes the cost of using the radios far below the cost savings. However, there are certain types of radio users that cannot effectively use cellular phones. The first issue is that there is not cellular coverage everywhere you go. Some areas have no cellular service and it does not matter which cellular carrier you use because no one has coverage in the area. This is more predominant in the rural areas, but there are places within the city that does not have good cellular service. So it does not matter how well the cellular phone works for your task, it does not function with cellular service. There is no way for the cellular phone to communicate without cellular service, so when you go into an area without cellular coverage, the cellular phone might as well be a boat anchor for all the good it is going to do for you. Also, most cellular phones do not have a replaceable battery, so when the battery runs down, you are out of service until you are able to recharge the battery. Audio accessories for cellular phones are limited in selection and generally not built for ruggedness. They are built inexpensively so that they can be sold to the masses at a low price and are not built for reliability. Cellular phones are also not built to be used with most gloves that are required to be worn in different types of work. This requires the person to remove their gloves to be able to handle the cellular phone which may not be an option at the time depending upon the job that is being performed.
Two-way radios overcome the issues discussed above for the cellular phones. Radio coverage for a given customer can be determined by the design of their radio system. Each customer is free to pick and choose the type of radio system they operate in contrast to the cellular system which is a take it or leave it proposition. There are a wide variety of radio systems that customers can use including the following:
- Simplex radio systems that do not utilize any fixed infrastructure. These systems can be taken anywhere at any time. The range of the radios is primarily determined by the terrain where the radios are being used. As long as there is line-of-sight, the radios will talk almost any distance from one radio to another. The need for radio signal from the “cellular system” in the area is non-existent but the range of the radio system is limited by the line-of-sight range due to the terrain in the area.
- Radio systems that utilize repeaters to extend the range of the radios require the repeater infrastructure to be installed at some location that provides the line-of-sight to the area where the radios are being used. As an example at a special event, this can be a tall building in the area where the event is occurring. Since all communications are from the radio to the repeater and from the repeater to all other radios, the repeater defines the coverage of the radio system and if you are not in range of the repeater, you cannot speak to anyone. (This is similar to the cellular phone which cannot work without the cellular system.) . However, since the radio system owner can also own the repeater, the repeater can be moved to any location that the owner desires that will provide the coverage required. Also, the owner can install more than one repeater at different locations in which each repeater covers a different area which can be used to extend the range of the radios by having two or more repeaters
- Radio systems can combine the simplex operation and the repeater operation so that if one is out of range of the repeater, the radios can be switched to speak directly to each other without the help of any repeater, so they can be operated in areas where there is no radio communication service available through the repeater.
- Radio systems that utilize a 3rd party that owns the repeater do not necessarily have the option to install a repeater at any location. However, the 3rd party repeater provider may be in a position to resolve the coverage issue by making another repeater available at another location depending upon the specific circumstances.
- Most radio systems are designed to have excellent coverage over a small area or they are designed to have reasonable coverage over a wide area. In order to achieve excellent coverage over a campus area, the repeater needs to be located on the campus to get the signal into all the buildings on the campus. Radio systems that cover wide areas are typically located on a very tall tower which is typically not on the campus that one is attempting to cover or on a mountain top (where a large line-of-sight area can be achieved) that is many miles away. Since the signal strength of a radio system decreases with the square of distance (a repeater that is 10 times as far away has a signal that is 100 times weaker, a repeater that is 100 times further away is 10,000 times weaker), the signal may be fine outdoors, but is far too weak to be able to work inside the buildings on the campus. Therefore, most radio systems typically work well in a confined area near the repeater or work over a large area, but will not provide the high performance inside buildings.
- Certain types of radio operations requires a high level of coverage reliability in the area of some special event, but still have a need for wide area communication. This can be readily achieved by certain types of radio systems that connect some local repeater to another repeater that is located where it can provide radio coverage over a wide area.
- Some radio systems are designed to prevent field personnel from talking to each other and can only talk to the office. This is typical with taxi operations, but can be used with other types of businesses.
- Certain types of radio systems allow for a hierarchy of conversations including priorities that can be customized for different requirements
- Certain jobs require extreme communications reliability and the cost of one missed call can far exceed the cost of the entire radio system. The level of reliability affects the purchase price in a two-way radio system but is not an option in a cellular system.
Another issue with cellular phones is that they are effectively an attractive nuisance that continually tempts personnel to use the device for personal use instead of paying attention to business. Some people think that the fact that a two-way radio does not text, send emails or allow one to surf the internet is a drawback. In reality, the inability of most two-way radios to do any of the above removes the two-way radio from being a distraction from their regular work duties and allows the worker to work more efficiently.
In certain circumstances such as driving a vehicle, the cellular phone exposes the driver and the company to severe liabilities which can overshadow the cost savings of using an employee’s cellular device. (A complete discussion of the laws regarding the use of cellular devices in vehicles can be found by clicking here . A news release from Kenwood regarding the use of cellular devices in commercial vehicles can be viewed by clicking here.) The cellular phone is considered an attractive nuisance which can distract the employee from doing their job correctly. If the company employs the use of a cellular device which distracts an employee, the company will be liable for any issue including (but not limited to) personal injury, property damage and loss of income which can be a huge amount of money depending upon the circumstances.
The following is a comparison chart between cellular and two-way radio:
|Cellular Phones||Two-Way Radio|
|Illegal to use in vehicle in most states without hands free device which provides dubious audio quality and is often obscured by ambient road noise.||Most states do not restrict the use of two-way radio in a vehicle. (California requires the radio to be permanently mounted to the vehicle to be exempt.)|
|Causes heating of tissue in head and shoulders when used||Does not cause heating of body tissues|
|Simplex operation not available. Cellular phone will not work without cell service.||Simplex radio systems can be used anywhere|
|Can only be used within the cellular service area of the cellular carrier||Repeater systems can be located wherever coverage is desired|
|Can only be used where your carrier provides service||Multiple repeaters can extend coverage to include all areas needed|
|Can speak one-on-one or can conference in a 3rd person||Can speak to an unlimited number of people at one time|
|Cellular phones are subject to eavesdropping. There is encryption on the calls. Exploits have happened but it is outside the capability of most people.||Can speak privately to only one person for privacy from the other users of your radio system. High security encryption is available to prevent any eavesdropping from anyone. Unless encryption is used, the call could still be intercepted with a newer model scanner.|
|Not a cellular feature||Can call multiple groups of people simultaneously.|
|Not a cellular feature||Can create priorities to hear certain groups over other groups|
|Can place phone calls to anywhere in the world||Can place phone calls if system is so equipped to anywhere in the world|
|Cellular phones are always full duplex||Most two-way radios are PTT and not duplex, so most phone calls are half duplex instead of full duplex|
|Batteries run down quickly when out of range because phone keeps trying to access cellular network.||Batteries normally do not run down quickly when out of range, but there are a few exceptions.|
|Cellular devices tend to be delicate||Two-way radios are typically ruggedized|
|Audio accessories for portables are typically limited and delicate||Wide variety of ruggedized accessories are available for every situation|
|Intrinsically safe not available||Intrinsically safe available for hazardous locations|
|Portable devices available||Base, portable and mobile devices are available|
|Low power (0.6 watts). |
|High power portables are available up to 6.0 watts. Mobiles are available up to 100 watts.|
|Battery not replaceable by user with almost all models||User replaceable battery with almost all models|
|Built in camera||Camera option available, but clunky|
|General computing built in||Computing not available|
|Built in GPS on all phones||Built in GPS on some models|
|Airtime fee to carrier required||Airtime fee to carrier required for certain types of radio systems. Other types of radio systems such as simplex systems do not have an airtime charge|
|Limited encryption available with possible fall back to insecure encrypts or unencrypted links.||Secure AES 256 bit encryption readily available|
|Phones often supplied by employees||Equipment supplied by company|
|Generally will not function with work gloves||Generally will function with work gloves|
|Call setup time is typically 10-30 seconds||Call setup time is typically 0.6 seconds or less|
|Not suitable for first responders as a primary method of communications||Suitable for first responders|
|Generally unavailable during major emergencies such as fire, flood or earthquake||Generally available during emergencies|
|Phone, email and texting cause personnel to waste time||Two-way radios do not entice personnel to surf the internet or play with the device causing major distractions and loss of productivity|
|Extreme reliability not available||Extreme reliability is available|
In summary, there are major differences between cellular service and two-way radio. Cellular offers a good level of service at an economical price but has little flexibility. Two-way radio offers reliability, versatility, flexibility and numerous ways to achieve the desired goals.