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Europe Catches PTT Bug

Push-to-Talk (PTT) technology has made its first tentative steps into the European market this week, with the launch of a similar phone service in the U.K. and a whole lot of big talk from small companies involved in the sector.

Software vendor fastmobile Inc. has become the first company to announce a PTT-type service outside of the U.S., with the retail launch of its fastchat "instant voice messaging" service in the U.K. via distributor Phones4U (see FastMobile Pushes to Talk). The service is similar in concept to the digital walkie-talkie-like PTT service pioneered in the U.S. by Nextel Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NXTL), although its not quite the same -- it basically allows the users to send pre-recorded messages back and forth to each other, rather than offering a real-time connection.

According to fastmobile's marketing director John O’Boyle, its PTT software will initially be available on phones running Symbian Ltd.'s operating system. The fastchat service takes advantage of a handset’s ability to record a voice message, parcel it up, send it out via GPRS, and then play the message back again on the recipient’s handset.

As well as its distributor deal, fastmobile has previously announced trials with Finnish operator Radiolinja Oy and France's Orange SA (London/Paris: OGE) and expects to announce supplier agreements with European carriers by the end of this year (see Radiolinja Trials Push-to-Talk).

“Although we are currently using distributors, we will in all probability be looking to deploy principally through the mobile operators as the technology matures into the operator space in the future,” O’Boyle tells Unstrung. “Working with distributors now gives us a solid testbed to go back to the operators directly. Everyone in the market is looking at this sector, if not our solution.”

Rival startup Sonim Technologies Inc. is also bullish on its plans to tackle the European market. “European carriers are looking to see what target markets and demographics are likely to aggressively adopt PTT,” says Sonim CEO John Burns. “They have already come to the conclusion that there will be a big enough market here to move forward.”

Burns expects Northern Europe, the U.K., and Italy to be the forerunners in this space.

Despite the startups' drum-banging, some analysts remain dubious of the technology’s ability to generate significant data revenue for European operators (see PTT: The New SMS?). The huge 3G financial burden hanging over most major carriers also raises the issue of whether certain players can actually afford to focus energies on providing PTT services.

“They have no choice but to deliver compelling revenue-based applications over existing GPRS networks, because if they don’t there is no way out of this financial quandary,” counters Burns. “They are all focused on the top service offerings they can bring to bear on the GPRS network that will serve as the catalyst to 3G services.”

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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