BCE Inc. is taking a deeper dive into the push-to-talk business market amid increasing demand for the niche wireless service from key industries including energy, retail and transportation.
The Montreal-based company's Bell Mobility division announced Tuesday that it is expanding its lineup of rugged handsets through an exclusive deal with U.S. phone maker Sonim Technologies.
Bell's objective is to leverage its existing networks and drive more data revenue from business users, who are seeking next-generation phones that combine one-button talk with smartphone apps that enable the seamless sharing of data from harsh industrial environments.
"Businesses, more and more, have this insatiable need for data," said Peter Wilcox, director of push-to-talk and IP services at Bell Mobility. "Whereas in the past, they might have had dedicated instruments that maybe were disconnected and they would have to bring that back to the office and then download it."
Although Bell declined to disclose the number of push-to-talk subscribers it has, or the ARPU (average revenue per user) they generate, it estimates the broader market at more than one million workers in industries such as oil and gas, transportation, construction, retail, agriculture and security.
"We're absolutely seeing growth," said Mr. Wilcox. He later added: "We are monetizing our network with devices that offer push-to-talk but also the data aspect. We are offering businesses more opportunities to leverage data,which means higher ARPU for Bell."
The agreement with Sonim makes Bell the sole Canadian provider of devices, including the Sonim XP5560 BOLT 2, the Sonim XP5560 BOLT 2 IS and the Sonim XP1520 BOLT SL, that come with enhanced safety features.
"For us, as a company, Canada is a strategic territory of sort," said Sonim chief executive officer Bob Plaschke. "[The] Canadian workforce has 10 to 20 per cent of its workforce who work in these outdoor, tough conditions."
Bell is also seeking to up the ante on Telus Corp., which operates a rival push-to-talk service. Telus's Mike service, however, operates on older technology that is similar to Sprint's IDEN Nextel National Network in the United States.
For its part, Sprint is planning to shut down its IDEN network just after midnight on June 30. It has been migrating customers to a more modern network that offers broadband data.
"We continue to offer Mike, and this does not change our commitment to the service," said Telus spokesman Shawn Hall in an e-mail. "It does mean, however, that our Mike customers will no longer be able to roam in the U.S. We are offering them options with HSPA and LTE."
Bell's parent company, BCE, owns a 15 per cent stake in The Globe and Mail.