Vendors turn GSM phones into walkie-talkies

Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens, three of the world's main GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) network vendors, are working together to turn GSM phones into walkie-talkies, they said Monday.

The three, traditionally rivals in the GSM network space, are jointly defining technology specifications to enable "push to talk" on GSM networks with GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data extensions. Initial trials of the service are set to begin the second half of this year, the companies said in a joint statement.

U.S. mobile phone operators AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Cingular Wireless LLC are interested in offering the service, they said in the statement. That means competition is on the way for Reston, Virginia, Nextel Communications Inc., which already sells a similar service and is rolling that out to offer U.S.-wide coverage.

Push to talk will allow GSM users to push a button on their phone and talk to one or more other users in a predefined group. There is no need to enter a phone number and the sender's voice immediately sounds on the other end, much like a walkie-talkie. Operators will likely sell the service as an add-on to the standard mobile call plans.

Voice will travel as data over the GPRS network. Users will receive an IP (Internet Protocol) address for their phone and have to program the IP addresses of the phones they want to connect with into their handsets, Mats Thorén, a spokesman for Ericsson in Stockholm said.

Like a walkie-talkie and the first Internet phone applications, push to talk will be half-duplex, which means a user has to listen first and then talk.

"In that aspect, it is more limited than an ordinary mobile phone call," Thorén said.

Businesses could use the service for fleet management purposes, while consumers can stay in touch with family while on the slopes or in a theme park, the push to talk backers said.

Though vendors see uses for businesses and consumers, at least one analyst thinks push to talk might be a hard sell on consumers.

"From the corporate side, I think it is a good tool in the operator's armory, but I am not so sure about the proposition for consumers. At the moment, the consumer can already send an assortment of different message types," said Jason Chapman, a senior analyst with Dataquest Inc., a unit of Gartner Inc. in Egham, England.

Mobile phone operators will be able to compete with TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) networks used by businesses. TETRA networks are based on TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) technology and are commonly used by police, ambulance and fire services, security services, utilities and transportation, among others.

"Push to talk is comparable to some of the fleet management services that we have seen launched on TETRA networks," Chapman said. "This allows mobile operators to now go to fleet managers, for example, and not only offer traditional voice services."

Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB and Siemens are planning handsets that support the walkie-talkie service. Nokia will likely also offer handsets, but could not immediately be reached for confirmation. The first commercial products and services should be out by the end of next year, probably in the U.S., Thorén said.

Mobile telephony operators will need to upgrade their networks to offer push to talk, but this is an easy and minor upgrade, according to the statement.

Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens invite mobile network operators and manufacturers to help create a single standard for push to talk on today's and tomorrow's GSM networks. The specifications that come from the joint work will be submitted to the relevant industry bodies for standardization, the companies said.

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