Sprint adds GPS information to Nextel's push tool

Sprint Nextel is extending the push-to-talk capability of its Nextel handsets so subscribers can send voicemail messages to e-mail addresses along with detailed information about their locations.

The NextMail Locator feature is aimed at the core of Nextel's target market of workers in the field. It lets first responders, delivery people, inspectors or repair technicians update dispatchers on their status without having to wait for someone to answer a call, the company said. It's an optional add-on to NextMail, which sends voice messages as audio attachments to e-mail messages. Both are activated just by pressing the Nextel Direct Connect Button, which is also used for the Direct Connect real-time push-to-talk service.

Sprint has recommitted itself to the Nextel network, which it acquired in the Sprint-Nextel merger of 2005 and said at the time it would gradually discontinue. Nextel, though smaller than Sprint, set itself apart with its pioneering push-to-talk technology, which lets co-workers communicate instantly instead of having to dial and answer their phones. The carrier had developed a loyal following among blue-collar field workers in areas such as construction, delivery and maintenance, but used a unique narrowband network technology called iDEN.

Under CEO Dan Hesse, who took over early last year, Sprint has retreated from its plans to dismantle the iDEN network or sell Nextel, and instead is acting to reinvigorate them despite Sprint's ongoing business woes. While introducing NextMail Locator on Tuesday, the company also unveiled new advertising apparently designed to rebuild the Nextel brand. It plans to roll out eight new Nextel Direct Connect phones this year. Over the past several years, Sprint said last year, it has added thousands of cell sites to the iDEN network.

When a caller in the field sends a voice message with NextMail Locator, the caller's GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates are also included in the mail, along with a street address and an interactive map that shows the caller's location at the time of the message. On the map, provided by Microsoft Virtual Earth, the recipient can toggle between a graphical street map, an aerial view with or without street labels, and a bird's-eye view overlooking the address at close range.

These features can verify that deliveries and field service events took place at a given location and time, according to Sprint. The message can be sent to as many as 50 e-mail addresses, including any valid e-mail address worldwide. With a list of contacts set up ahead of time, a caller can send the message to all those people with a simple "push, speak, send" action, Sprint said.

NextMail Locator is available now on all GPS-equipped iDEN phones, as well as PowerSource handsets, which work on both iDEN and Sprint's CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) network. Those handsets include the BlackBerry 8350i. NextMail Locator costs US$19.99 per month on top of the subscriber's regular plan and the $7.50 per month cost of NextMail.

In the third quarter of 2008, the last period for which it reported results, Sprint had 13.5 million iDEN customers and 35.4 million CDMA customers, along with 1.6 million users of PowerSource phones, which can run on both networks. In the first three quarters of that year, Sprint had suffered a net loss of about 2.9 million postpaid subscribers overall. The company is set to announce its fourth-quarter 2008 results on Feb. 27.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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