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Why Walkie Talkie Apps Haven’t Replaced Real Walkie Talkies

Understand and Overcome The Issues You Might Face in a Walkie Talkie to Smartphone Walkie Talkie Migration

Migrating from Two-Ways Radio Walkie Talkies to Walkie Talkie Apps - What You Need to Know


Smartphone based Walkie Talkie apps (Zello, Voxer, VoicePing) have been invented since 2012 but have had limited success in replacing Radio based Walkie Talkies in the Enterprise usage. Some deployments have also been rolled back after to operational concerns and not so good experiences.

In this article, I will share my experience as an industry insider. If you are considering a smartphone deployment to replace your current walkie talkies, this will prepare you for the important issues you should watch out and prepare for. These are also the reasons why I have set out to build a smartphone that works well as a Walkie Talkie first and foremost for companies that rely on Instant Voice is their primary mode of communication.

For each issue, I have assigned my personal rating of how close Walkie Talkie Apps can replace radio based walkie talkies.

By covering these issues, I hope to help you anticipate issues that will arise from deployment of walkie talkie apps.

Also other than replacing Walkie Talkies, companies usually have other objectives when deploying smartphones for field workers so even if the Walkie Talkie apps do not totally match up to Radio Walkie Talkies, Walkie Talkie Apps might still be deployed.

We will cover each of these issues in detail but I would like to share the summary rating here. Most issues can be overcomed with the correct deployment and proper expectation management.

The rating system is as follows:

8 to 10 points……….. No Difference from Walkie Talkies

6 to 7 points………….Almost Walkie Talkie Like

3 to 5 points………….Usable with Caveats

0 to 2 points………….Not Ready to be used

Benchmarking Walkie Talkies and Walkie Talkie Apps

Walkie Talkie vs Walkie Talkie App

Need for Cellular Internet Connection

Firstly, most walkie talkie apps require an internet connection. Internet based Walkie Talkies allow you to speak to anyone as long as both parties have an internet connection. There are walkie talkie apps that just use Wi-Fi but with a range of 10-30 meters, you might as well be shouting. And if you have a Wi-Fi connection, then most likely you have a internet connection as well.

Compared to Radio based Walkie Talkies which work without need for other devices or a network connection, requiring a internet connection is a huge downside. If there is no connection, you are unable to send or receive messages. In remote areas where cell connection is really spotty, using Walkie Talkie Apps (e.g. VoicePing, Zello, Voxer walkie talkie apps) is really a bad experience as users as sometimes able to send and sometimes not.

But if you are in sub-urban or urban areas, it is likely that Walkie Talkie Apps might work for you since the cellular coverage is usually better and have better range and indoor coverage than radio based walkie talkies.

Need for Cellular Internet Connection

Rating: 4/10 (Rural) | 8/10 (Urban)

Inconsistent Speed of Transmission

To be viable, push-to-talk services need to be near instantaneous; when a user pushes the PTT button on the device and starts talking, there can be little or no delay. In traditional 2-way radios (Land Mobile Radio or LMR) the delay from the time the PTT button is pushed and the transmission begins is measured in milliseconds.

This is in contrast to some Walkie Talkie Apps which have a setup time before the user can speak. This can be frustrating for users as the wait time varies and users have to pay attention to the start tone.

If users do not learn to wait, this causes lost speech at the front of the message and the receiver does not understand the message.

Even after the start tone, there is a difference in transmission speed. Walkie talkie transmission time is less than a second. Long range walkie talkies operate consistently at the speed of light. There is little delay added by repeaters and the speed of transmission is consistent.

Good Walkie Talkie Apps have been made to work on the slowest data connection (GPRS) but they still require some connection. Typical transmission ranges from 1 second to 5 seconds depending on network type, congestion and coverage.

Since Walkie Talkie Apps depend on your internet connection, they are affected by network conditions. When the network is congested during peak load period or if you are in a bad area, your message might take longer to send and receive than usual.

The good news is that with 4G networks, congested networks are becoming rare and sub second transmission is more consistent.

Inconsistent Speed of Transmission

Rating: 9/10 (4G) | 7/10 (3G) | 6/10 (2G)

Harder to send

Experienced Walkie Talkie users often experience pain migrating from Walkie Talkies to Walkie Talkie Apps. The key issue is that what used to be very easy (sending a message) has become much harder and they need to re-learn the mode of operation.

On a walkie talkie, to talk, a simple push is required. There is no other work or thinking required.

But with Walkie Talkie Apps, the user has to do a few more steps. What used to be a 1 step process is now a 4 step process.

Walkie Talkie: Push -> Talk

Walkie Talkie App:

  1. Press hard button to Switch on Phone Screen
  2. Unlock to Enter Home Screen
  3. Choose the app (if not opened)
  4. Talk

It is not really the fault of the app developer as they have to work within the constraints of the Phone Operating System. However this makes sending a message on a walkie talkie app require much more effort and time.

Most good walkie talkie apps recognize this and have tried to solve this with 2 approaches.

The first is that they allow you to map a hardware/phone button to start a PTT. However this still requires the user to jump through the steps of unlocking the phone.

The second is that they have integrated with bluetooth buttons that allow you to Push to Talk. This reduces the above steps to one step as the user no longer has to unlock the screen. However this requires a separate button to be attached to the phone which increases cost, makes the phone hard to pocket and hold.

Another other difference is that how the bluetooth button functions. Due to OS limitations, users also have to learn a different mode of operation when using these bluetooth buttons.

Instead of pressing and holding on while they speak, they now have to press once to start and once to stop. This is a behavior change from what they are used to and very hard to change as they have been doing the Push to Talk behavior for years.

When users forget to press to stop, the consequences is they jam the channel and send out unnecessary information.

Harder to send

Rating: 6/10 (BT Button) | 3/10 (On Screen Button)

Phone is too big to hold and talk

The importance of phone size is much less appreciated until you actually start using the phone as a walkie talkie. Remember when Steve Jobs didn’t want phones to exceed a certain width because then you can’t hold them in one hand? Well it’s really true.

Especially for field workers who are working with their hands, having a large screen means it is really hard to grip the phone properly.

Whether a bluetooth button is used or where the button is on the screen greatly affects the ease of operation. The position of the button on the device is important as there will be a counter force required when you press the button.

This is why walkie talkie buttons are on the side. You can grip, press to talk with your thumb and your other fingers can provide both the grip and counter force.

Two-Ways Radio Walkie Talkie

On small phones, this is still possible but if your phone has a 5 inch screens, users find it difficult to grip the phone and might drop the phone while trying to operate the PTT. Thus choosing the right phone is important for using Walkie Talkie Apps.

Smartphone for Push-to-Talk Communication

Typical Walkie Talkie Width are  57mm - 62mm. iPhone 5S: 58.6mm. iPhone 6: 67mm. Samsung S6: 70.5mm

Phone is too big to hold and talk

Rating: 8/10 (iPhone 5 Size) | 5/10 (5 Inch Screen Phones and larger)

Speaker too soft

Depending on the phone you have, the loudspeaker in your phone is typically rated at 0.5 Watt to 1.0 Watt. It is quite rare to find a really loud phone as not many people need it.

A walkie talkie on the other hand is usually rated from 1.0 Watt to 2.0 Watt for speaker output. This means most walkie talkies are twice as powerful as a smart phone and are able to fill a noisy room with their speaker.

Choose a phone (e.g Zello/VoicePing walkie talkie phones) that has at least a 1 watt speaker so that even if the phone is in your pocket, you can still hear the voice message that is coming in. These phones are rare but findable.

Look under GSMArena for phones that have more than 75db for Voice Rating. The loudest phone is at 103db and belongs to Sonim XP7. It uses a 1 Watt Speaker

Harder to send

Rating: 7/10 (Phones with Good Speaker) | 4/10 (Most Smartphones)

Battery Life

Typical walkie talkies are rated for continuous usage throughout an entire shift of work. This is tested by having the Walkie Talkie transmit and receive 5% of the time. Most walkie talkies are rated for 11 hours on a 90/5/5 cycle.

For smartphones we can refer to web browsing benchmarks as the web browsing behavior is similar to using a Walkie Talkie app with data and screen usage.

According to GSM Arena, the S6 has 11 hours for web browsing and the iPhone 6 has 10:30 hours.This places Smartphones on par on par with most walkie talkies and there should not be much issue in having the smartphone last throughout a shift.

The caveat is that if however signal reception is bad, phones have to pump up their transmission power thereby using more power and you might get less usage. To get around this, we recommend frequent charging, replaceable batteries or power banks.

Battery Life

Rating: 9/10 (Most Smartphones)

Ruggedised to Drop/Dust/Water

Most Walkie Talkies are somewhat ruggedized and dust/water proof. Different levels of protection exist but the most common is IP55 (Dust Protected, Water Jet Protection).

Some phones are also ruggedized even if it is not marketed that way. Sony Xperia Z3 is IP 65 and Samsung S5 is IP67. These ratings mean that they are even more dust and water resistant to the walkie talkies. Even the recent iPhone 6 has been tested in water for up to two minutes and has no damage to it.

However another concern is drop damage. This is most visible when screens crack. The screen is the most fragile part of the phone given that its the largest and yet most fragile part. Walkie Talkies have less of these concern as they have less breakable parts.

A well chosen case can ensure your phone survives the most common drops of up to a story. Cases can also come with protective flaps to prevent further dust and water protection. However make sure you chose a case that does not block the sound output.

Check out this video for a list of cases that survive a  50ft/15 meter drop 

Ruggedised to Drop/Dust/Water

Rating: 9/10 (With Rugged Case) | 4/10 (No Case)

Smartphones enable users to do too much

Whereas a Walkie Talkie is just used for talking to colleagues. There isn’t much you can do and the furthest entertainment you can get is to sing to each other.

On the other hand, Smartphones are like a swiss army life that can do everything. On the surface, this sounds great for users but concerns like distraction from work and excess data usage charges often surfaces after a deployment of smartphones.

Enterprise deploying smartphone should consider ways to restrict usage of apps and ensure users are using it only for business. A common method is to buy a Mobile Device Management software like IBM MobileFirst Protect. This however cost about $5 USD per month and adds to the operating cost.

Smartphones enable users to do too much

Rating: 8/10 (Mobile Device Management) | 2/10 (No Control)

Different Form of Financial Investment

The financial modeling for Walkie Talkie Apps is new for most companies and IT managers as it is less capital intensive and more of operational recurring cost.

Walkie Talkies do not have recurring cost which makes it easy for companies to estimate and depreciate the infrastructure.

Typical Walkie Talkie Cost comes from the following

⁃ Initial Purchase of Walkie Talkie Device

⁃ Paying for Licensing of spectrum

⁃ Installation and maintenance of Repeater cost

The financial cost for Walkie Talkie apps are a bit different from Walkie Talkies. In Walkie Talkie apps, the cost comes from the

⁃ Smartphone Device Purchase

⁃ Monthly App Subscription

⁃ Monthly Data Plan Subscription

However these does not mean the total cost of ownership is higher for Walkie Talkie Apps. Each company will have to work out their own Total Cost of ownership depending on their location, spectrum licensing and number of users.

In some cases like like multi story buildings and large areas or country wide usage, Walkie Talkie Apps will be cheaper than Radio Walkie Talkies. Smartphones might also have other business applications and thus the cost of infrastructure might be shared.

In indoor environments, Wi-Fi coverage might remove the cost of the monthly data subscription, thus making Walkie Talkie apps much cheaper to deploy than radio repeaters.

Different Form of Financial Investment

Rating: 8/10


I hope I have shared the issues that you might consider when doing a deployment. Please do sign up for our newsletter for more tips on how to ensure a smartphone deployment might go well.

If you are seriously considering a Walkie Talkie to Walkie Talkie App migration, please do email me at to learn more about how our Smart Walkie Talkie device solves most of the issues above and saves you from putting together your own solution via experimentation.

We also have a comments below where you can share your experience and what you wished Walkie Talkie Apps can solve so that they can match up to Radio Walkie Talkies that you are currently using.

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