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Mobile

Nextel pushes new 'push to talk' features

The company wants its popular walkie-talkie cell phone service to work when a wireless network isn't available, a move that could give it a leg up on rivals.

Nextel Communications wants its popular walkie-talkie cell phone feature to work when a wireless network isn't available, a move that could give it a leg up on carriers that offer similar so-called push-to-talk technology.

At an investor conference Wednesday, Nextel Chief Executive Tim Donahue described the new service as an "off-network push to talk" with a much shorter range than the company's current nationwide DirectConnect push-to-talk service.

Nextel equipment supplier Motorola developed the technology for the new service, which relies on an extra radio inside each cell phone. "We've had a lot of calls for this, especially from those customers moving outside coverage," Donahue said.

With push to talk, callers need only push a single button to connect to another cell phone. It happens in less than a second, as with walkie-talkies. Because there's no time spent dialing or making a connection to a network, calls are shorter and less expensive than usual.

Nextel also intends to soon introduce NextMail, a wireless e-mail service that lets people attach sound recordings so anyone can listen to them using a personal computer, Barry West, chief technology officer at the company, said at the conference. "It's pretty cool. We are just getting it to market."

The new features could help Nextel fend off rivals. The company faces challenges from U.S. carriers Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless, which have launched copycat DirectConnect services aimed at both large and small businesses.

Although push to talk has won favor with corporations with mobile workers who can benefit from such instant communication, a study released last year from cell phone industry watcher Telephia found that a relatively low number--25 percent--of the 1,500 corporate executives surveyed expected to use the technology. The study also found that just 7 percent planned to make the technology available within the next 18 months.