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Walk the Talk

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European mobile operators are following the example of their peers in the US as they ready the launch of new "walkie talkie" style services for 2004.

According to Chris Haddock, director of European marketing for Ubiquity Software, handsets could hit the European market as early as this Christmas, incorporating normal GSM phone functionality as well as the new "push-to-talk" (PTT) facility that is already available on special handsets in the US, from operators like Nextel.

Haddock, who was speaking at the Pulver.com Voice on the Net conference in Boston, said European telcos are tight-lipped about their plans to launch push-to-talk, but the services are expected to hit the European market during 2004.

"Push-to-talk is analogous to SMS; this type of service will hit the same community as messaging did," said Haddock, whose company makes specialised application servers for mobile operators. "It's a young person's service."

Push-to-talk is what it sounds like: instead of dialing a number to start a conversation with a friend, users just select someone from their buddy list, push a button on the handset, speak, and their voice is instantly heard by the recipient. Like a walkie-talkie, push-to-talk is uni-directional, so callers can't talk over each other and must wait their turn to speak.

Nextel in the United States already offers its customers handsets that feature its "Direct Connect" walkie-talkie service, but Haddock says push-to-talk has been slow to hit Europe because it would have required operators to build an expensive, separate, dedicated radio infrastructure. But now, mobile operators can use their existing infrastructure: the push-to-talk signal can be carried over the same IP channel that connects the user to Internet services, such as Vodafone Live.

Those services, of course, entail a well-known delay when the user first connects, which is likely to dampen the immediacy of a walkie-talkie service. But Haddock said he believes that users -- especially those in the under-35 market who will be the prime audience for push-to-talk -- won't be put off by the delay. Once the first connection has been made, subsequent back-and-forth messages are instantaneous.

Eventually, operators are likely to upgrade to real-time systems that give subscribers an always-on IP connection for services like push-to-talk, but that requires an investment in new infrastructure. Haddock said operators could be inspired to make the upgrade if push-to-talk works as well as they hope it will.

"Mobile operators would see push-to-talk as a way of pushing up minutes of use," said Haddock. Operators will also be hoping to inspire greater loyalty among subscribers, and the service could also work to inspire whole groups to move to or stay with a network that offers push-to-talk. "The operator who's first to market could end up having the biggest share of all," he said.

© ENN

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