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Nextel to up U.S. 'push to talk' range

The wireless phone company is set to begin a three-month scramble to expand the range of its popular DirectConnect walkie-talkie feature from coast to coast.

U.S. wireless phone company Nextel Communications is set to begin a three-month scramble to expand the range of its popular DirectConnect walkie-talkie feature from coast to coast.

Initially, only Nextel subscribers in Boston, Los Angeles and Florida will be able to use Nationwide Direct Connect, which the company plans to introduce Monday. But a rapid-fire expansion is planned, with subscribers in San Francisco, New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., being added to the mix by June 16, the company said. By August, Nextel intends to include every city and market that it covers.

The service will cost $10 a month for unlimited use, or Nextel subscribers can pay on a per-minute basis, according to the company.

Nationwide Direct Connect is an example of "push to talk" (PTT), which creates a direct connection between cell phones--eliminating the need to dial a number and wait for a network connection. Other carriers plan competitive services by the end of the year. Most of Nextel's 11 million customers are mobile professionals; rival services will probably be more focused on the consumer market.

For the past 10 years, Nextel has exclusively offered PTT in North America. But its range was never more than a few hundred miles at a time. The company is now making it possible for the PTT conversations to travel on its Internet protocol backbone, used to ferry regularly dialed calls between cell phone base stations and broadcast antennas sometimes thousands of miles apart.

"We can travel from Hawaii to New England in the same (time)--or less--(that) it takes to connect between San Francisco and San Jose," said Drew Caplan, Nextel's vice president of network services.

AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless are all planning competing PTT services, which should debut sometime late this year or early in 2004. But according to sources, the three carriers are having trouble with an important aspect of the service called "latency," or the time it takes for the calls to travel these great distances. Nextel's average latency is a second, Caplan said. Other carriers' setups have been slower by as much as five seconds in tests, according to sources.

"We're confident that Sprint will have a competitive offer later this year," said Sprint PCS spokesman Dan Wilinsky. "It's odd that people would be speculating about...our product, because we haven't announced any details yet."

Nancy Stark, a Verizon Wireless representative, said her company "will offer a competitive product" when it debuts sometime this year. She refused further comment.

AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi said his company's service may leapfrog the reach of Nextel's once it debuts in 2004. AT&T Wireless has roaming agreements with 30 international carriers, so it can offer a PTT service that reaches around the world, not just across the United States, Blasi said. Nextel is exploring whether to offer a global version of its PTT service.

Merely a blip on the carriers' radar screens now is Fastmobile, a Chicago-based newcomer that has created a way for cell phones without a built-in PTT feature to make these calls, anyway. The company has begun selling a service for $10 a month. It's available to any AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile or Cingular Wireless subscriber who owns either a Nokia 3650 or a Sony Ericsson P800 handset.