Nextel keeps moving on push-to-talk

Nextel Communications Inc. isn't waiting for more mobile operators to roll out would-be competitors to Direct Connect, the pioneering "push-to-talk" service that lets subscribers talk instantly to friends and associates. It's charging ahead to extend that service and its capabilities.

Plans include expanding the service internationally through its Nextel Worldwide service, adding data services to it and linking the QChat system for CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and Wideband CDMA (WCDMA) to Nextel's iDEN network, Nextel executives said at a press briefing in Atlanta on the eve of the CTIA Wireless trade show.

"We really are the experts at this," said Barry West, Nextel's executive vice president and chief technology officer. The Reston, Virginia-based carrier has about 10 years experience with the technology and 90 percent of its customers use it, West said.

Push-to-talk technology lets subscribers make instant calls to contacts who are Nextel subscribers just by pushing a button on the phone. Following Nextel's success, other carriers, including Verizon Wireless Inc. and Sprint Corp.'s Sprint PCS Group in the U.S., are now coming out with similar services. European service providers are expected to follow suit. But Nextel isn't standing still.

Direct Connect is set to hit the streets this year in Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and the parts of Mexico that don't have access to it already, West said. Today it is available only in the U.S. and major Mexican cities. Pricing has not yet been set, but subscribers probably will pay a premium to make international Direct Connect calls, executives said. A new data service called "NextMail" allows subscribers to use the push-to-talk system to dictate e-mail messages, said Greg Santoro, vice president of Internet and wireless services.

Nextel also is working on gateways between the QChat push-to-talk service and Nextel's iDEN network, in order to allow instant calls between iDEN users and CDMA and WCDMA networks worldwide. QChat will be demonstrated at CTIA Wireless, which runs Monday through Thursday.

Nextel is also starting to introduce a handset-to-handset push-to-talk capability that lets users keep communicating even if the cellular network goes down, Santoro said. This capability may be critical for public safety employees in emergencies, he said.

The briefing by several executives covered a wide range of topics, including future product and network plans and expansion of the company's consumer-oriented Boost Mobile service.

Nextel plans to introduce camera phones and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) capabilities this year, they said. The company sees its business customers using MMS to send audio and video files to and from phones, Santoro said.

The carrier will deploy a faster mobile data capability in the fourth quarter of this year by "ganging" four iDEN channels together using a technology it calls WiDEN. It can deliver speeds of 60K bps (bits per second) to 80K bps, West said.

However, "this isn't really broadband," West said. For that, Nextel is testing a wireless technology from Flarion Technologies Inc. in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. West sees it delivering 1.5M bps to 3M bps downstream and 200K bps to 500K bps upstream to stationary or mobile users, representing a true competitor to DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable modem service.

Boost Mobile, a pay-as-you-go service now offered only in California and Nevada, will soon expand to seven new markets, including the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, Washington, D.C., Florida and Texas. Boost has proved very successful among African-American and Hispanic youths in urban areas, the executives said.

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