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Orange's big push into push-to-talk

From Guildford to Guadeloupe

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How about this for a business idea? Take a very useful service, like mobile phones, make it less good by making it one-way, like a walkie-talkie. Charge more for it. Make it jumpy, more expensive to run, and only available in half the country.

Call it something baffling like say, push-to-talk, which is a pretty good description of what you do with a mobile already. And you have a killer wireless service, no?

Orange may not be quite as ahead-of-the-game as they were in the Hans Snook leather-jacket-and-enema days. But even as a France Telecom-owned shadow of their former selves they wouldn't bring such a crazy project to market. Or would they?

Orang's VP of Advanced Service Delivery, Frank Bowman, says it has a way to make push-to-talk work, and he wants to launch it everywhere from Guildford to Guadeloupe.

“We have done the research and our customers tell us they want these services,” he says. “They have told us they are willing to pay for these extra services.”

Orange launched its new-look push-to-talk last month to corporate customers. It hopes to repeat the considerable success of Nextel's push-to-talk (PTT) service from the US, based on Motorola's proprietary iDEN service, rather than the many abandoned trials and failed launches which have left many wondering what the point of PTT is anyway.

Bowman is not talking in person, but in a pre-recorded video for a presentation by Orange’s technology provider, Kodiak Networks.

Kodiak bares all

The Kodiak technology is something of a back-to-the-future solution. Non-Nextel PTT projects have sent calls via IP over GPRS, which doesn't really have the bandwidth to handle voice traffic efficiently.

Kodiak, however, sends PTT over old-fashioned GSM, so it has similar quality of service and latency characteristics of GSM voice. It runs anywhere there is GSM coverage, which is much wider than GPRS.

It's even been built to be easy for the Feds to wiretap.

Kodiak aims to bring the basic features that made the Nextel iDEN-based service a hit, such as very quick call set-up with no ringing. Kodiak quotes a figure of 1 to 4 seconds rather than 15 to 30 for ordinary GSM to set up a call.

"The iDEN approach and the Kodiak approach are virtually identical from a technical point of view," says Bruce Lawler, Kodiak's VP of Business Development.

Kodiak claims PTT brings Nextel an extra $18 a month of revenue from the average PTT subscriber.

Kodiak has updated the Nextel formula with another layer of added features. These include instant messenger-style presence indicators, one-button upgrade to a normal two-way voice call and easy group calling. So an angry CEO can scream at his entire executive team with the push of a single button on his mobile. It's even been redubbed 'instant voice messenger'.

Sagem, Alcatel, Nokia, LG and PalmOne have already signed up to develop Kodiak PTT-enabled handsets, and a Kodiak client can be downloaded onto existing smart phones.

PTT is sold as a value-added service, with Kodiak's US customer, Alltel, charging between $5 and $20 a month for the privilege of using it.

Blue collar devotees

Like iDEN, Orange says that TalkNow trialled well in blue-collar industries such as logistics and construction, many of whom are already walkie-talkie devotees. White collar workers have also been receptive.

Whether Orange will be able to reproduce the success of Nextel remains to be seen, but there may well be a niche for PTT in business.

However, the consumer market may be a harder nut to crack. PTT is a tough concept to explain, let alone to charge for. Orange, once a pioneer of simple billing, would have to add yet another layer of complexity to monthly bills.

"The kids haven't told us yet what they are really going to do with it," said Orange's Bowman. He foresees packs of fifty or a hundred kids hanging out at Piccadilly Circus, all PTT-ing each other.

It may well happen. But if it costs teenagers £10 a month to be part of this nightmare vision, Eros can probably rest easy. ®

Related stories

Orange UK launches corporate push-to-talk
Motorola brings push-to-talk to Wi-Fi
Nextel vexes Verizon with $5bn spectrum swap

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