Push comes to shove for 'push to talk'

Nextel Communications has had a lock on the enormously successful walkie-talkie cell phone feature, but competitors are looking to change that.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
NEW ORLEANS--A shoving match between wireless giants has erupted over a cell phone technology called "push to talk."

Developed by Motorola, the technology turns cell phones into walkie-talkies by connecting to other phones without dialing and within just a few seconds.

The cell phone network gear used for the feature has now been replicated by Ericsson, which introduced its Instant Talk cell phone network equipment here Monday at the CTIA Wireless 2003 show. Ericsson has begun offering the telephone network equipment and specially made handsets to carriers throughout the world, said Ericsson Director Peter Lancia.

Another telephone equipment maker, Samsung Telecommunications America, said Monday that it has hired Togabi, a wireless software maker, to develop a push-to-talk feature its calling PacketChat. Samsung has not said when this will become available.

There's also a battle brewing among Nextel Communications--the only U.S. carrier now offering the service--Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS.

Verizon will launch a similar service sometime this year, Vice President Bill Stone said Monday. Sprint PCS has said in the past that it also intends to make a similar offering to its subscribers.

One of the key benefits of the push-to-talk feature is a shorter-than-normal cell phone call, which cuts down on dialing costs. Nextel Communications has made billions of dollars selling the service to construction companies, trucking firms and others who once used walkie-talkie-like devices to instantly connect to others.

Nextel Communications President Tim Donahue said his company will not suffer when competitive services are finally introduced here in the United States and abroad.

He claimed that other carriers are having difficulty matching the performance of Nextel's DirectConnect service, which connects callers in less than two seconds. Competitors are much slower, connecting in 10 and 25 seconds, he said.

"There will be another product eventually, although Verizon and Sprint PCS keep pushing their dates back," Donahue said. "But we don't think they will get anywhere near us."

But what Ericsson's Instant Talk might lack in speed, it will make up for in new features not offered by Nextel's DirectConnect service, Lancia said.

Instant Talk will work on more cell phone networks, including those built using Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), the world's most popular cell phone standard, and Qualcomm's Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which powers about 18 percent of the world's cell phone networks, Lancia said.

Motorola's technology was built to work on just one kind of network. Nextel is the only carrier in the nation using IDEN (Integrated Dispatch Enhanced Network).

Unlike DirectConnect, Lancia said, Instant Talk gear will also include a buddy list similar those found in instant messaging programs. In addition, the gear's "direct message" feature will offer a service similar to voice mail. Users will be able to play back messages sent while the phone was off or out of range, he said.

"We are seeing a lot of interest for this product, both here and in Europe," Lancia said.

A Motorola representative had no comment Monday.