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Fastmobile turns up volume with new channel

Fastmobile has landed a new distribution deal for its Fastchat messaging application for mobile phones. The company's walkie-talkie service competes with Nextel and Verizon Wireless, but it also offers integrated IM and e-mail.

Mobile messaging software maker Fastmobile Inc. has announced a new distribution deal that will put the company's Fastchat walkie-talkie voice application in front of many more potential users, even as it faces tough competition from established push-to-talk competitors.

The Schaumburg, Ill.-based company has signed a deal with distributor American Connections LLC that will make Fastchat available in the 1,100 U.S. retail locations served by ACL.

The Fastchat application, which can be downloaded onto smart phones running the Symbian OS on General Packet Radio Services (GPRS) networks, enables customers to use their phones like two-way radios with other Fastchat users. The application also sends and receives pictures, video, e-mail and instant messages, boasting compatibility with the instant messaging clients from AOL and MSN.

Though Fastchat has been available as a download from the company's Web site since May, Fastmobile co-founder Harry Eschel said this agreement marks the first time that mobile phone buyers will have the opportunity to learn about and purchase Fastchat at the same time that they buy a phone and accompanying service.

Eschel said that even though the product is geared to both consumer and enterprise users, mobile professionals will find Fastchat useful because it combines several different communication modes in a single application on one device.

Even though Fastchat's features extend beyond walkie-talkie functionality, it still finds itself in competition with established players like Nextel Communications Inc. and Verizon Wireless Inc., which is currently launching its own walkie-talkie service.

Avi Greengart, lead wireless analyst for New York-based Jupiter Research, said Fastmobile's service isn't as user-friendly as its competitors'. Fastchat's functionality is constrained to the application, while Nextel and Verizon Wireless provide dedicated buttons on their phones that activate the walkie-talkie feature. He also said it's unclear how Fastmobile compares with the carriers regarding walkie-talkie latency.

"If you're very serious about push-to-talk, serious enough that it's a critical enterprise need, then you're going to go with Nextel or possibly Verizon," Greengart said.

However, Greengart said that Fastchat would be a good choice for companies that need to integrate several forms of electronic communication into one device. For instance, he said, insurance adjusters in the field would benefit from being able to use the application to send digital photos; then they could use the walkie-talkie feature to communicate quickly with the recipient.

Customers typically pay between $2.99 and $3.99 per month to use the carrier-agnostic Fastchat application. The base fee includes unlimited walkie-talkie usage as well as all incoming messages. Outgoing messages cost 2 or 3 cents per message.

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