The walkie-talkie is one of the most ubiquitous signs of communication in many industries, being relied on for everything from events to warehousing. Part of the reason for the use of the walkie-talkie headset is that the device itself tends to be fairly rugged. Yet they are rapidly going out of fashion. Why? Because unified communication solutions tend to be much more reliable.
The Evolution of the Walkie-Talkie Headset in Business Communication
The Canadian Don Hings created the first walkie-talkie back in 1937, and they enabled effective battlefield communication during World War II. Of course, the first walkie-talkie was very heavy — being just over 2 kg (5 pounds), which added a lot of weight to infantry looking to move swiftly across contested terrain.
With the rise of miniaturization in tech, the commercial walkie-talkie became much more accessible to the average member of the public — particularly in the 1970s. By the 1990s, they were so small and light that they were marketed to children. Waterproof walkie-talkies became practical, ensuring they lasted. Many big brands made their names in the walkie-talkie business, such as Motorola, Kenwood and ICOM.
Yet they were prone to major problems. Most models had no encryption and only a limited number of channels — so if there were multiple businesses nearby, there could be some substantial overlap. In addition, they had a limited range. Worse, before rechargeable batteries, it could be inconvenient to keep them powered. In the 70s and ‘80s, in particular, these issues weren’t disadvantages because there were no real alternatives.
But it was different in the 2000s. The rise of mobile phones and much better coverage of the internet started to make a huge dent in the walkie-talkie headset market. Issues such as interference — originally a mild annoyance — became a priority because other solutions were becoming much better.
The walkie-talkie headset was in decline. Even with high-quality repeaters installed, it wasn’t possible to access external lines or enable easy communication with multiple businesses. And there wasn’t a requirement to invest in comparatively expensive technology — spending $140 on a communication device was not the norm even in 1994, so you didn’t do it unless you absolutely had to. Waterproof walkie-talkies simply couldn’t cut it.
Worse, almost anyone with the same brand of radio could access your communication channel quite easily. Nothing was secure, particularly with the rise of scanning equipment that could quickly check all the radio frequencies traditional walkie-talkies could use. Even if your walkie-talkie had a squelch code, and akin to a lock on a door, it added expense. And customized codes are still extremely rare, so again, an identical business walkie-talkie could unlock a private commercial conversation. Although there are now some advanced solutions for this issue, it’s too little, too late for many.
This still is a problem for emergency services, as there have been numerous incidents of people either jamming local emergency communications or hijacking them to broadcast false emergency reports. While these are sometimes described as “sophisticated,” there’s nothing particularly special about the equipment or the knowledge needed to do this — it can be as simple as purchasing the right device and running it.
Key Walkie-Talkie Bands
Most walkie-talkies operate on one of several bands. These include:
- 462/467MHz (US, Family Radio Service)
- 220/700/800/900MHz (US, Specialized Mobile Radio)
- 27MHz (US, Citizen’s Band)
- 446MHz (EU, Private Mobile Radio)
- 410-430/870-876/915-921MHz and others (EU, TETRA)
- 477MHz (Asia-Pacific, UHF Citizen’s Band)
Of course, because the radio spectrum is used for multiple purposes, most governments have strict limits on how walkie-talkie headsets can operate. This means that radios intended for different markets can be unlawful in certain countries. In addition, some commercial walkie-talkies are only intended for emergency systems, such as the 380-385MHz band that forms part of TETRA in the EU.
There are some types of business walkie-talkie that can be used with trunking services, but these aren’t SIP trunking services. Instead, they can share frequencies without interfering with each other.
One major disadvantage of many of these channels is that there are some modern building materials that can heavily interfere with them. Low-E glass, for example, has a metallic coating on it, which can repel signals. The sheer amount of metal in many buildings, as well, can also hinder walkie-talkie reception by acting as a large Faraday cage.
There’s a huge range of devices that work with professional walkie-talkies. Most walkie-talkie systems have some sort of output port for a walkie-talkie earpiece, although the exact type of port varies heavily depending on the brand. While some use a standard 2.5mm or 3.5mm jack, many brands have their own proprietary jacks, especially on higher-end models. This reduces what options you have for a walkie-talkie earpiece, potentially increasing expense considerably.
There are also Bluetooth walkie-talkies available, which can connect to most Bluetooth earpieces and headphones. These make it easier to reduce costs by connecting to standard devices, but in many cases, battery life remains a problem for those earpieces. Bluetooth walkie-talkies often find that batteries drain far faster than their wired counterparts, as well.
The Rise of the Mobile Phone
The primary competition faced by business walkie-talkies was from mobile phones. Within a town in the city, it was just as easy to receive a mobile signal as it was to get a walkie-talkie signal, and you had the advantage of being able to contact those outside the walkie-talkie’s range. This significantly hampered the proliferation of commercial walkie-talkies and walkie-talkie headsets.
Mobile phones generally had good reception in most buildings, and once Wi-Fi became more standard in the mid-to-late 2010s, they could always access signals in some way. This is even the case with low-E glass, for example, which partially blocks most phone signals.
Mobile telephony also resisted interference, and with the rise of smartphones, they could do everything professional walkie-talkies could do — and so much more. From a business perspective, they solved many problems that most commercial walkie-talkies could not, and people could routinely carry them, even outside of work.
Internal Communications With Commercial Walkie-Talkies
Of course, the mobile phone wasn’t the only thing that was starting to become more popular. Internal phones could use data-based networks and DECT to establish great connections. Call quality rose significantly, rendering commercial walkie-talkies moot in many cases. Instead of having to call down to the warehouse using a bulky walkie-talkie headset, you could use a standard hands-free phone instead. And the warehouse worker could take the call.
These systems became so much more effective — and with hands-free headsets becoming much more popular, there were far better options for many staff than a bulky walkie-talkie.
This also meant that DECT phones became a more practical option, as well. These were light, could be ruggedized, and again, had the advantage of being up to call outside lines. In an environment that could be hazardous, this was a major advantage. A business walkie-talkie headset was limiting. A DECT phone, even a simple one such as W-AIR Basic2 is freeing for lone workers and busy workers alike.
Is the Walkie-Talkie Headset Still Relevant?
Currently, the key advantage of the walkie-talkie compared to mobile phones is that they allow multiple parties to communicate at the same time. This can still be useful for many businesses and organizations that need to rapidly set up group communications so that others know what is going on.
Where the walkie-talkie headset still shines is in areas where short-range radio communication is still better than local mobile signals. In these cases, especially for emergency situations, a solid walkie-talkie solution ensures good communication across large areas no matter where the person is. Those working in more isolated areas without a mobile phone signal may find that good professional walkie-talkies are still much better safety nets.
This could be for those in forestry, emergency services, search and rescue or even those working on film sets.
When Should You Replace a Walkie-Talkie Headset?
You can replace your walkie-talkie headset with a UCaaS-based broadcast solution in many cases, and that eliminates the need to invest in a completely different system. For retailers, for example, x-hoppers is the obvious choice, as it offers all the benefits of a business walkie-talkie system without the additional issue of carrying around a radio in your pocket.
Most unified communications systems now come with a hardware as a service option, which makes continuous maintenance extremely easy. If the headset breaks for whatever reason, or the battery degrades faster than expected, they can be replaced, no questions asked. In busy retail environments, in particular, this ensures you don’t have to worry if a phone gets run over (a surprisingly common problem when forklift operators are involved) or just gets dropped and breaks. The use of an appropriate headset instead of a phone makes this even less likely.
For everything from busy offices to fleets, concierges or even security, a unified communications system delivers so much more flexibility than a walkie-talkie headset system does. You can attach doorphones and cameras to it, call outside lines in the event of an emergency and even have private conversations with other people without anyone listening in without you knowing. There’s also almost zero chance of jamming or someone delivering false information, as well.
If you want video as well — especially useful when you may need to view a situation remotely — the only practical option is a unified communications system based on a smartphone or tablet.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the walkie-talkie headset is becoming a much more niche item as we move deeper into the 21st century. While it still has its place for some specialized services, unified communications systems are now flexible enough and powerful enough to work better in most cases. And the rise of the mobile phone — as well as unified communications apps that work on mobile devices — ensures that commercial walkie-talkies are very feature-poor compared to their unified communications counterparts.
If you’re interested in learning more about communications, check out our recent post on how to use an office phone.
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