AT&T takes on Sprint in push-to-talk services

AT&T Enhanced PTT goes on the market as Sprint Direct Connect tries to capture the Nextel crowd

AT&T announced general availability of its Enhanced Push-to-Talk service on Tuesday, taking on Sprint's Direct Connect Now app as the carriers vie to attract users of the fading Nextel network.

Nextel pioneered push-to-talk (PTT) long before it was acquired by Sprint in 2005, and the walkie-talkie-style feature became a killer app in construction, facilities management, hospitality and other industries. PTT lets users talk instantly without setting up a conventional call and waiting for their counterparts to answer the phone.

Sprint plans to finish shutting down Nextel's long-lived iDEN network in June and is now offering the Direct Connect feature on its CDMA network and as a new app, called Direct Connect Now. The end of Nextel's original PTT could open up this lucrative business market to new players. AT&T announced an early access program for Enhanced Push-to-Talk in September and is now making it generally available to customers of all sizes.

Among AT&T's selling points are that Enhanced PTT can run over its LTE network and can support larger contact lists and talk groups than competing systems do. The software allows users to maintain contact lists of as many as 1,000 people. Talk groups, which can be addressed all at once for general alerts, can be as big as 250 users. Enhanced PTT also allows for "supervisory override," where a manager can interrupt and talk over any current PTT calls in the group. The PTT software can be integrated with other mobile apps, such as fleet management, and in the future enterprises will be able to integrate their own applications with the system, according to AT&T.

The service costs US$5 per month when added to other voice and data plans, or $30 per month by itself. PTT calls don't count against a subscriber's monthly data limits. It's available now for the Samsung Galaxy Rugby Pro, Galaxy S III and Galaxy S II Skyrocket, as well as the BlackBerry Curve 9360, BlackBerry Bold 9900, and Motorola ES400. It will soon be available for the Samsung Rugby III and Sonim XP5560 Bolt feature phones.

LTE, which is available on the Galaxy S III, Skyrocket and Rugby Pro, offers faster connection times, lower latency and greater reliability, according to AT&T.

Sprint has had some success at retaining Nextel subscribers. In the third quarter, it said 59 percent of subscribers who cancelled Nextel service signed up with Sprint. Its PTT rivals so far haven't gained much traction, according to mobile analyst Maribel Lopez of Lopez Research.

Though both business customers and subscribers using a carrier-specific service tend to be more loyal than most customers, the PTT market may not be a growth opportunity for carriers, according to Lopez. Users have many more ways to keep in touch than they did in the heyday of PTT, including SMS, Twitter and Facebook, she said. The need for PTT remains focused mainly in Nextel's original core user group of a few million customers, Lopez said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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