Back when IT was the only push-to-talk game in town, Nextel Communications Inc. could rest on the laurels of the service that lets customers use phones like walkie-talkies.
But now most of the major wireless carriers in the country offer some variation of push-to-talk service. To that end, Nextel this month is introducing new products and services that differentiate it from competitors.
For starters, the Reston, Va., company last week announced a partnership with NII Holdings Inc. and Telus Corp. to create a walkie-talkie service that spans North and South America. The service, International Direct Connect, provides walkie-talkie connections between the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Peru and, separately, between the United States and Canada.
“It spans 7,000 miles,” said Greg Santoro, Nextels vice president for Internet and wireless services, who said that more than 90 percent of domestic Nextel customers have added Direct Connect service to their accounts. “And it is instant.”
Beyond that, Nextel is expanding its data offerings to woo enterprise customers. “Weve optimized IDEN [Integrated Digital Enhanced Network] to be the best network for handset applications,” Santoro said.
Later this month, the company will introduce NextMail, which integrates voice and data on the push-to-talk network. The service lets customers send voice messages as MP3 files embedded in e-mail messages. Officials said the service is geared toward mobile employees who read their e-mail on mobile devices but who find it easier to speak an e-mail reply rather than type it. Subscribers can send a voice message to as many as 30 individuals or groups simultaneously.
The recipient need not be a Nextel subscriber; the only recipient requirements are an e-mail account, a Web browser and Microsoft Windows Media Player. NextMail costs $7.50 per month and is available now.
Nextel also has formed a partnership with Vettro Corp., of New York, and Salesforce.com Inc., of San Francisco, to serve customers who need wireless access to more than just e-mail. The Vettro client sits on the Nextel i730 or Research In Motion Ltd.s BlackBerry 7510 or 6510, giving Nextel customers online and (through synchronization) offline access to Salesforce.com databases.
For the future, the company is looking to location-based services, Santoro said. Within the next few months, Nextel is introducing extensions to its services to allow for turn-by-turn directions and the ability to track employees in real time. Some 20 application partners are building applications that focus on location services, Santoro said, although he declined to name them.
On the device side, the company is set to unveil the i830, which is smaller and sleeker than its predecessor, the i730, according to officials.
Analysts said that Nextel knows what its doing in the application space and that its push-to-talk offerings are more mature than its competitors.
“Theyve done very well in enterprise applications, utilizing knowledge of their customer base,” said Michael King, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in San Diego. “And the type of services they can offer, because its a radio-based service rather than a SIP [Session Initiation Protocol]-based one, give them the opportunity to offer a better service.”
But if the company is ahead in application development, it continues to lag in network coverage. Nextel is trying to remedy that. By the end of the year, Nextel plans to upgrade the IDEN network to a level called WIDEN (Wide IDEN), which is supposed to offer data throughput rates up to four times those of IDEN. WIDEN is comparable to so-called 2.5G networks such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access)-1X, which competitors Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS Group offer. But those carriers already have started to roll out faster 3G networks.
“WIDEN is keeping [Nextel] up but not going to give them a competitive advantage,” King said. “The WIDEN stuff is competitive with CDMA-1X and GPRS, but its not competitive with EV-DO and WCDMA [wideband CDMA].”
Nextel is in the second phase of trials in North Carolina with Flarion Technologies Inc., of Bedminster, N.J., which offers high-speed services based on OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing). The company has yet to announce wide-range plans for Flarion.
Much still depends on spectrum. This continues to be a headache for Nextel, whose signals interfere with public safety communications in the 800 band. The company is in negotiations with the Federal Communications Commission to deal with this issue. In its latest move, Nextel last week proposed a $512 million deal to move television broadcasters out of the 1.9GHz band.
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