Canadian race car teams surge ahead with push-to-talk on Blackberries

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Ian Willis has used two-way radio communication for many years, and is painfully aware of its limitations.

Willis is a partner at AIM Autosport, a Woodbridge, Ont.-based operator of multi-car race teams.


For the past 14 years his company has been training and managing these teams that compete in such events as the Rolex Sports Cars Series and the Star Mazda Series.

“In this business – where we measure time in tenths of a second – the ability to get a hold of someone, anywhere, anytime is crucial to us,” Willis said.

While all Autosport race cars are outfitted with two-way radios, these devices have certain obvious drawbacks – the main one being that they operate only within a limited radius.

It’s the need to overcome such restrictions that led Willis to check out – and eventually adopt – Telus’ Mike Direct Push-to-Talk (PTT) service.

Today, all of AIM Autosport’s race team members use phones equipped with PTT to communicate with one another.

“They’re ideal for us because they provide a speed and quality of response we need in our business,” said Willis.

(Left to Right) – Tim Lavell, Director of Sales, RIM; Ian Willis, Partner, AIM Autosport; Mark Applebaum, Principal, Strategy & Marketing, Mobility Solutions at TELUS.

He had a vivid experience of this recently, while busy at a race in Mexico City, and trying to reach his brother in Virginia – who also runs an Autosport race team.

The Virginia track was in a very remote location, recalled Willis.

“Mobile service isn’t strong in that area, and I couldn’t reach him on his cell so I thought, let’s try Miking him. I hit the [push-to-talk] button, and sure enough it was like he was standing across the road from me. I could barely believe it.”

Willis said his ability to engage in crystal-clear, two-way “radio communication” with someone 2,500 miles away was an extraordinary experience.

“I was sold on the system right there,” said Willis, who has since rolled out Mike devices to all members of his race teams.

With 25–30 members of various teams on the road at any given time, he says, the ability to communicate with one another and make decisions on the fly is paramount.

“We’ve also been using Mike to put guys on Talkgroups.”

And these groups use the push-to-talk functionality for many purposes –professional and personal.

“When we’re on the track, one of the hardest jobs is getting 12 guys to coordinate going to dinner,” said Willis. “Now we get on the talk group and say: ok, we’re heading to Appleby’s…let’s meet at 7 in the lobby.”

And it all happens faster than you can say “Bruschetta Burger.”

But the “talk groups” also use the Mike service to conduct serious business, and it’s here that the benefits – and cost savings – are most apparent, according to the AIM Autosport principal.

For instance, he said if a mechanic needs a part he “mikes” the team manager. “He can a run over to the trailer retrieve the part, and get it back to us quickly, because we’re on a time-bound schedule.”

Moving forward, Willis said, AIM Autosport drivers and crew would be using the Mike Direct PTT service on the new BlackBerry Curve 8350i.

And at the launch of the Mike PTT service on the BlackBerry 8350i last week in Toronto, Willis was one of the main speakers.

Another was Mark Applebaum, principal, strategy and marketing at Telus – who sought to illustrate the advantages of using Mike PTT on the Curve 8350i by relating a hypothetical success story.

It revolved around “Joe the project manger” and the timely replacement of a faulty component thanks to efficient communication by various persons – who used a broad range of Mike Direct Connect on the BlackBerry Curve 8350i.

These included:

  • A Mike PTT alert about the missing part
  • A “push-to-view” transmission of the part’s picture
  • Telus GPS tracking and dispatch to identify where the component should be shipped from
  • A wireless work order sent over the smart phone
  • A group PTT conference
  • Calls and e-mails over the BlackBerry smart phone, and,
  • Telus visual voice mail to scan converted e-mail transcripts of missed voice messages on the Mike Blackberry.

The (slightly convoluted) tale was narrated to demonstrate the benefits using the Mike PTT on the BlackBerry Curve 8350i.

Applebaum dubbed the offering as “an all-in-one business tool” because of its broad range of capabilities including: push-to-talk and push-to-view, cellular voice service, e-mail, GPS (you pay extra to get the Telus tracking-and-dispatch application) and WiFi.

Such a breadth of features, he said, make it the ideal tool for field workers and mobile professionals.

“Especially in these tough economic times it will help [businesses] save money, increase revenue and be more effective.”

Up until now, members of AIM Autosport teams have accessed the Mike PTT service on another smart phone.

“I just got the BlackBerry Curve 8350i phone today, so I haven’t yet figured out all the features I can use,” Willis said.

But he predicts the new BlackBerry will bring further enhancements.

Mike Direct Connect PTT offers cost and other advantages over cell phone communication that make it an appealing tool to businesses and mobile professionals, according to a Canadian telecom analyst.

Roberta Fox, senior partner at Fox Group, a telecommunications consulting firm in Markham, Ont. 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.”

Canadian businesses using Direct Connect may be able to take advantage of various established Mike networks within North America to reach contacts in specific verticals.

These include construction, health and social services, hospitality & travel services, media & entertainment, oil & gas, professional services and transportation & automotive.

The “cost advantages” of Mike Direct connect over traditional cell phone communication is a feature Telus promotes heavily on its Web site.

Some cost-cutting features of the Mike service highlighted on the site are” the per-second billing in Canada and the U.S., the fact that the Direct Connect local calling area spans all of Canada and the U.S. – and that you can communicate with a single person on a whole team within the same Talkgroup.

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