QChatting Again

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By BRational
July 2, 2003

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A recent visit to Qualcomm's website's download section revealed several new "white papers" that appear to have been made available relatively recently. Some of these are not "white papers" in the sense that we have come to expect from Qualcomm�recall the classic Economics of Wireless Mobile Data, that made a very convincing case for the economics of CDMA 1X compared to GPRS, EDGE and WCDMA. These are more or less extended promotional brochures, with a little more text and fewer pretty pictures than a typical promo. These new white papers cover three main areas: (1) EVDO�the data-optimized high data rate flavor of CDMA 1X, for which a collection of 13 white papers, with more or less technical content, have been made available here; (2) BREW and its Java compatibility; and (3) QChat, the so-called Push-to-talk (PTT) approach for CDMA 1X networks.

I will be revisiting the EVDO white papers and might post separately on some of them eventually. Here I will mention one of them (later), and focus on the QChat white paper, which is available here.

The timing of this white paper is somewhat fortuitous, because I had been meaning to post on PTT anyway�I believe this feature is poised to take off, and become really big, beyond its original, highly successful audience of Nextel subscribers. Most of this board's readers are aware that Nextel offers this walkie-talkie feature on its cell phones, which allows direct communication with another Nextel subscriber within a certain local area, at the push of a button. In addition to the convenience and speed of such communication (no need to dial and wait for the other party to pick up), it has been essentially "free" to subscribers, i.e. no per-minute charges nor debit from one's allocation of minutes. These features have made it particularly popular among tradesmen� repairmen communicating with their coworkers or supervisors, and a variety of service personnel in the building and transportation trades.

For years, Nextel had a monopoly on this feature, which is available exclusively on specially manufactured handsets by Motorola, which also supplies the network infrastructure, based on a variant of TDMA/GSM called iDEN. About a year ago, Qualcomm announced QChat, a functionally similar PTT capability intended for CDMA 1X networks, and compatible with its BREW platform (though the latter is not required). Along with that announcement was another announcement�that Nextel had essentially paid for an exclusive license for QChat in the US, and would somehow share in the intellectual property arrangement with QCOM and Motorola. The announcement, and the discussion at that time caused quite a bit of confusion; it was broadly interpreted as Nextel buying time against the CDMA carriers in the US, while allowing Qualcomm to deploy elsewhere in the world, especially in Asia (speculation partly fueled by a statement Dr. J. made at that time, that QChat would allow PTT calls between Beijing and Boston (or San Diego, or some other city in the US...).

Nextel's CDMA competitors in the US, Verizon and Sprint, have both announced the intent to provide PTT service (though under a different name, because Nextel apparently owns the trademark to the Push-to-talk terminology), using technology not developed by Qualcomm, hence not QChat.

This white paper gives a good background on PTT, why it makes sense for carriers (the main audience for this white paper), and explains the presumably unique features of QChat. I'll try to summarize some highlights.

1. The paper uses Nextel's experience as a major success story for the impact of PTT, and likely impact of QChat, for carriers�namely high ARPU (for voice and data) and low churn rate (i.e. significantly fewer customers switch to competing carriers than the industry norm). The higher than industry average ARPU is important, because it dispels the notion that the "free" talk on PTT somehow substitutes for regular voice and data use�PTT users tend to be higher than average users of "regular" voice telephony (Nextel's ARPU is $70 per month, whereas the industry average in the US is below $60). The low churn rate (of under 2%, compared to industry average above 3% in the US) reflects user satisfaction with this unique feature, that no other carrier can offer.

2. QChat seems to offer quite a bit more than Nextel's current iDEN PTT�it is a packet-switched service, that follows "Voice over IP" protocols, i.e gets routed essentially like digital data on the Internet (voice is typically circuit switched). This means that it can travel over much longer distances than Nextel's current PTT and still remain essentially instantaneous; it also means that one could send more than just voice over IP, but also video and multimedia� like sending video at the push of a button.

Actually, another white paper, in the EVDO section this time, describes a capability called 1X-EVDO Instant Multimedia, which they don't link directly to QChat, but is essentially the natural extension of QChat into multimedia via high bandwidth EVDO.

3. The white paper goes into some length about why QChat is ahead of competing approaches to PTT over CDMA networks. It correctly identifies two main factors in the implementation of such capability:

a. The extra traffic burden that is added onto the network by PTT; while PTT conversations tend to be shorter than regular phone conversations, they tend to be very frequent, hence adding substantially to the overall traffic that the network has to carry. This is where CDMA has an advantage over GSM, especially with 1X's considerably increased capacity relative to 2G networks; still, the white paper claims that QChat gives a manageable increase in signaling load, but competing solutions will overwhelm the network. No detail is provided on specific competing solutions.

b. More evident is the latency issue�this is the time between pushing the button and actually reaching the person we want to talk to; even at the time of the initial announcement, it was noted that the latency aspect still needed some fine-tuning. The white paper sets a maximum latency of 2 seconds as the maximum that would be acceptable to users; it also claims that QChat set up latencies are under two seconds. Competing solutions have set up latencies of at least five seconds. Elsewhere in the paper, we are told that the average latency is more like one second for QChat.

4. The Market Opportunity for QChat. Unlike the local area feature of the current Nextel offering, QChat is envisioned as allowing global PTT, at a fraction of the cost of international long distance phone calls. This means that global arrangements for interconnectivity and roaming are necessary among carriers offering this feature. Presumably Nextel would be the main purveyor of this capability in the US, and would allow Korean visitors to QChat (and eventually QIMMS via EVDO) with folks back home in Seoul.

As we are told on the concluding page, QUALCOMM is committed to the proliferation of QChat and has a strategy for global success:

� Establish a worldwide network of PTT solution providers with seamless roaming.

� Provide the necessary marketing insights and operational knowledge to enhance the user experience, promote PTT usage and grow the QChat solution.

� Enable a low-cost alternative to international long distance calls.

5. This still leaves many questions unanswered, as well as suggests some intriguing possibilities ahead. The key questions in my mind are what happens to Sprint and Verizon? Is Qualcomm flatly abandoning them in this service, and helping Nextel? How is this going to affect their future enthusiasm for new features and services from Qualcomm? On the possibilities side, the Asian powerhouses of China Unicom, KDDI, the Korean operators and now Reliance in India all stand as significant opportunities for this service. This was noted at the time of the original announcement, but it appears that PTT has picked up considerable steam and is being viewed as just the kind of new feature that will boost phone replacement and add excitement to the ownership and use of mobile handsets.

And it just might�even Nokia recently joined the bandwagon and announced a PTT capability being developed and tested for its GSM carriers, especially in Europe (watch out for overloading those already congested networks, though). To those who have been Nextel customers for a long time (and I know our friend Rex is one), the attitude must be somewhere between "I told you so" and "I don't see what the big deal really is". Still, it is evident that the mobile market is groping for growth drivers�drivers for handset replacement, as well as drivers for increased ARPU. As the wireless data adoption process moves more slowly than had been hoped in many markets, and the color-screens, polyphonic sound of new models become somewhat ubiquitous in advanced markets in the Far East� while the WCDMA deployment experience continues to follow Dr. J's notorious schedule prediction made at the Cannes GSM gathering a few years back-- carriers and manufacturers alike desperately want new ideas, gimmicky but practical. PTT and QChat seem to expand on mobility's only killer app to date�voice.

With single button speed dialing, and voice recognition dialing now commonplace, we often find ourselves becoming impatient as we wait for the number to dial and connect; PTT is the next logical development. For every "customer service" call-center hellish experience we go through, we want to be able to reach those with whom we frequently communicate instantly.

Finally, a personal anecdotal observation. What drove the point home to me about just how cool QChat could be, is a car that pulled up next to mine at a traffic light a couple of days ago. In this vehicle was a rather attractive young lady (from what I could tell through the tinted glass...), just talking into her sleek handset, walkie-talkie style (i.e holding it like a microphone as opposed to holding it against her ears). She was going on and on, clearly enjoying this style of communication. Having recently returned from Europe, it occurred that this was a truly unique American approach to wireless. Kind of like Levi's Jeans. Then I thought: I really want one (walkie-talkie phone, of course...easy JP!).

Please share your thoughts and experience. Will QChat help stimulate the CDMA market and give it additional competitive differentiation?


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