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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
Turning mobiles into walkie-talkies
By Paul Rubens

New "push-to-talk" services that turn mobile phones into walkie-talkies with unlimited range could soon make text messaging obsolete.

Mobile phone
Tell me, don't text me
The services let users choose a recipient from an instant messenger-style "buddy list" on their phone screen, press a key and start talking.

The message, which can be up to 30 seconds long, comes out through the recipient's mobile's loudspeaker almost instantaneously.

Push-to-talk has proved immensely popular in the United States, and Nextel, the mobile phone operator which dominates the US push-to-talk market, has 12 million customers for its service.

In an instant

Last year US users sent over 62 billion push-to-talk messages, says Nextel.

Now a Chicago-based company, FastMobile, plans to launch a push-to-talk service called FastChat in the UK.

Push-to-talk systems use the "always-on", low cost data network GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) to send messages from one mobile phone to another.

All UK mobile phone operators, as well as international operators, offer GPRS for transmitting digital data.

When a person sends a message, it goes to the mobile phone company's internet gateway. It is then sent over the net, like an instant message, to a messaging server.

From there it is passed back over the net to the country the intended recipient is in, and finally to a mobile by GPRS.

By bypassing expensive voice networks, push-to-talk messages can be sent at a similar cost to a text message, even internationally.

The quality of the voice messages is the same or better than mobile phone calls because the messages are compressed just like voice calls, but less data is "lost".

Push-to-talk is not designed as a replacement to normal phone conversations, but as a quick and convenient alternative to texts.

It does away with the bother and expense of dialling a number, according to James Tagg, European Managing Director of FastMobile.

Ease of use

More than five billion text messages were sent in the first quarter of this year alone, according to figures from Oftel.

Many of the "meet me in the pub in 20 minutes" type of messages sent by the most active texters, 18 to 26 year olds, could be conveniently sent as push-to-talk messages, says Mr Tagg.

'Be here in 20 minutes'

Even though predictive texting, larger keypads and abbreviations have all made text messaging easier, he believes simple spoken message would be more appealing.

FastChat is also aimed at taxi and delivery companies using expensive radio systems or walkie talkies with limited range, as well as business people who need to be in constant touch with colleagues.

Since the technology behind it is the same as net-based instant messaging, it is more versatile than traditional phone-based texting.

Push-to-talk messages can be sent to multiple recipients, including FastChat and computer based IM users.

Users can also e-mail messages and attachments, like picture phone images.

The average user could expect to pay about 7.00 per month, with bundles of messages available from next month, but other packages would be available for business use.

Conversations would also have a sliding scale of charges, so it will not end up more expensive than making a normal voice call when replies are sent back and forth.

If the success of push-to-talk services in the US is anything to go by, companies like FastMobile may soon make text messaging look positively old hat.

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