Who is Kodiak Networks? Mobile Europe was asked by a representative of one of the mobile industry's biggest vendors of push-to-talk equipment after Orange launched its TalkNow service, surprising many in the industry with its choice of technology provider. Keith Dyer set out to get some answers.
In launching the first "international" push-to-talk service, and the first cellular push-to-talk service in Europe, Orange has not chosen any of the major vendors currently getting excited about the technology. Not Motorola, with its experience in the USA, nor Nokia, with its efforts to push forward under the Push to Talk over Cellular (PoC) standard. Instead Orange has chosen a system from new player Kodiak Networks.
A few facts about Kodiak. First, the company is not part of the prevailing orthodoxy of PoC providers, who are grouping around the nascent PoC standard. PoC players include Motorola, Nokia, Siemens and Ericsson. Kodiak's biggest difference is that it uses the voice channel to provide PTT, rather than running over GPRS data channels. For establishing presence, the system uses SMS, rather than SIP, with phones automatically sending and receiving low payload SMSs. Calls are managed through Kodiak's Real-Time Exchange (RTX), a switch which sits above the transport layer of a network, interconnecting with multiple MSCs. Kodiak says this gives it big benefits to do with latency, quality of service and speed of call set up.
So who, or what, is Kodiak? Well the best explanation comes from ceo and founder himself, Craig Farrill.
Farrill is well-known to the mobile industry. He has stints as a former cto of Vodafone under his belt, designed D2's network in Germany and also knows CDMA inside out after senior development roles with AirTouch and PacTel. Farrill himself says, "Those that know me think of me as 'the CDMA guy.'"
Also on the management team is Kris Patel, who lead the development of Motorola's iDEN network technology in the 1990s. This, of course, gives Kodiak a rather large insight into the inner workings of the technology behind their main rival in the push-to-talk market.
Kodiak has been around as an entity since 2001, operating in what Farrill terms "stealth mode". Currently Farrill claims to have NDAs signed with 20 operators, including some European players, who are testing or trialling the technology. The company has CMDA and GSM compliant push-to-talk systems and is backed by venture capitalists behind some of the biggest names in networking.
"Financially we're in good shape --- despite what Nokia says about us," says Farrill, displaying some touchiness about being regarded as a start-up.
Farrill is bullish in the extreme on the need for more advanced voice services, and the ability of his company to meet that need.
"It's time for a renaissance in voice. And the most important thing to be added is PTT, allowing the ability for conferencing, messaging and talk," he says.
To illustrate the value to operators of a push-to-talk system, Farrill cites Nextel's experience in the US. Nextel, of course, offers customers a direct connect service on top of its cellular services, and, Farrill claims, the lifetime value of a customer to the network is twice the industry average. Churn is also at about half the industry average. Push-to-talk generates 50% more voice minutes than cellular telephony, and with more than two people on a call, more call legs mean more revenue.
So the value of PTT is established, Farrill says, but Kodiak can help customers do it even better.
The reason for this is using the voice channel rather than a voice over IP (VoIP) session. The Kodiak pitch is that VoIP sessions have three second latencies, and a two second "chirp wait" as packets are segmented, re-assembled and multiplexed. Kodiak offers "real time voice volleys at 150 milliseconds "wait". The effect of the latency means a VoIP call is 2.7 times longer than the Kodiak version
Farrill also claims that the Kodiak system offers a host of functionality that will not be offered by GPRS VoIP services. These include providing quality of service on a shared channel, as well as the ability to upgrade the call to a full duplex call (ie a normal cellular call) and bill for it. Kodiak's system also allows operators to bill on a per leg, per call basis. Kodiak even allows for PTT roaming, both on an operator's group assets, as Orange is offering, and onto other networks.
It's quite a list, but Kodiak faces two main problems. The first is that it is virtually a lone player versus the prevailing orthodoxy of the PoC standard. Ericsson, Motorola, Siemens and Nokia are all pushing the PoC specification through the Open Mobile Alliance, and have specified PoC services on the 3GPP's IP Multimedia Subsystem requirements.
The second is about handsets. Getting the Kodiak client onto handsets manufactured by providers of competing infrastructure technology is not going to be easy.
For Farrill they are two related points.
"The three essentials for operators are handsets, billing and reliability. For handsets we have a partnership agreement with Handspring for its Treo600 [GSM] and a CDMA phone with Kyocera. Our software can go into existing phones as a software download, at point of sale or be embedded into the phones themselves.
"The other guys are developing a standard but their intention is to lock people into their handsets. Motorola, Nokia and Siemens are developing a "standard", leaving the rest of us on the outside. It's just another way of controlling the market."
Indeed Farrill claims that the standard will not ensure interoperability between equipment and that the only way of "betting on reliability" today is to use the voice channel.
In any case, Farrill can now point to the Orange contract. He claims that Orange will have Kodiak-enabled 12 handsets by the end of the year. After that he says Orange is going to "put Kodiak in every phone" which may come as a surprise to the handset vendors.
Despite a reluctance among vendors to see their phones equipped with client technology allowing users to take advantage of rival infrastructure, Farrill claims that he wants to "sell through all these guys...I'd rather OEM through them than fight them in the market."