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Motorola powering DirectConnect upgrade

Nextel Communications and Motorola detail Nextel's plans to tap improvements in a Motorola-created cell phone standard to upgrade its popular no-dialing-required phone service.

Executives from Nextel Communications and Motorola discussed on Tuesday details of Nextel's plans to tap improvements in a Motorola-created cell phone standard to upgrade its popular no-dialing-required phone service.

Beginning in 2003, Nextel's DirectConnect service will acquire a nationwide reach, with some subscribers able to chat with people anywhere in the continental United States, Nextel Chief Technology Officer Barry West said during a technology update for analysts and the press. Nextel describes DirectConnect as a "digital long-range walkie-talkie" built into a phone, which lets the phone connect to a similarly equipped handset without the need for standard cellular procedures such as dialing.

Currently, Nextel customers can use the feature only with someone in the same calling area, which can vary in size from a city to an area measuring thousands of square miles. Rival carriers are expected to offer their own versions of the existing, shorter-range service soon, and West said the upgrade is an effort to stay a step ahead. Nextel should make the new longer-range service available to all of its subscribers by 2004, he added.

DirectConnect has become one of Nextel's chief moneymakers and one of its most popular services. Subscribers make three DirectConnect calls for every two standard cell phone calls, West said. Expanding the reach of the service will only make it more popular, West said--and put Nextel further ahead of other wireless carriers.

West did not release prices for any new services, or say what geographic areas would be getting the expanded service first.

Motorola under the hood
The change to DirectConnect is among the scores of projects being developed right now by Motorola, which is currently in the process of upgrading its IDEN, (Integrated Dispatch Enhanced Network) cell phone standard, said Fred Wright, Motorola vice president of global telecommunications. Nextel is the only major U.S. cell phone carrier to use IDEN, which is the fourth most popular cell phone network standard in the world and the only one that currently allows for DirectConnect style services.

Nextel hasn't yet decided whether it will take advantage of all the new elements being added to IDEN, which include faster wireless Web capabilities and doubled capacity for cell phone calls, Wright said.

"These are big development programs: 12 to 18 months from...start to hard architectural work," Wright said.

To increase the speed and capacity of IDEN, Motorola is relying on software it developed that lets six cell phone calls be conducted simultaneously over the same sliver of spectrum, Wright said. The ratio is usually one call to one chunk of spectrum.

Wright said Motorola is also creating a "gateway" that will enable IDEN-based telephone networks to connect to cell phone networks based on currently incompatible standards such as Qualcomm's Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) standard. The gateway would let someone using DirectConnect on IDEN communicate with someone using a DirectConnect-like feature offered by a CDMA carrier, Wright said.

The gateway from Motorola is another sign of the growing effort to put different cell phone networks on better speaking terms. Most of the major wireless manufacturers, including Lucent Technologies, Qualcomm and Nokia, are working on similar "bridges" between the nine different cell phone standards. The goal is to create a single wireless network that can host calls from any cell phone, regardless of the standard it's based on. Calls involving different standards are now possible--but such setups are crude and expensive.

When it comes to wireless Web speed, IDEN-based networks are now capable of downloading data at about 15kbps, at least four times slower than the wireless Web networks of Sprint PCS and Verizon Communications. IDEN is also about half the speed of wireless networks now sold by T-Mobile, Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless.

Wright said Motorola is working on ramping up the maximum speed of IDEN networks to 132kbps. The average user experience would be comparable to those offered by the other five major wireless carriers, he believes.