KANSAS CITY, Mo. — (Chirp.) Think back a few years to when Nextel's chirp was king.
(Chirp.) Right, 2005, lots of construction. Work sites sound like bird sanctuaries. All those Nextel push-to-talk phones chirping back and forth.
(Chirp.) And Sprint was merging with Nextel Partners, making that chirp its own.
(Chirp.) This spring seems quieter.
(Chirp.) Got that right. Companies have been dropping off. Now Sprint is ready to unplug the Nextel network. The last day is about a year away.
News of Nextel's shutdown date, delivered in May, has thrust 5.4 million Sprint customers into the market for new phones.
Most carry those walkie-talkie Nextel devices on the job. Others have Sprint's Boost Mobile month-to-month wireless service and the push-to-talk feature.
They're like fresh meat in a lion cage, given the wireless industry's fierce battle for subscribers.
Sprint Nextel is busily pitching its new version of push-to-talk service called Direct Connect, which runs on the Sprint network. It makes the same sub-second instant voice connection between not only Direct Connect phones but also with the Nextel phones still circulating.
Account reps come knocking with 99-cent phones and service credits to "buy back" the Nextel phones that won't work after June 30, 2013. Just sign the new contract.
Verizon Wireless and AT&T offer push-to-talk devices, though AT&T declined to comment for this report.
"We are definitely interested in talking to former Nextel customers ... and we are actively doing that," Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Hill said.
Then there is Seattle-based Twisted Pair Solutions. It has an app for push-to-talk communication on any mobile device connected to any data service.
Wave Connections, the application, is free for consumers who then can invite up to four friends to make a group. Businesses can link their employees' phones with the app at $15 a month for each phone beyond the five freebies, chief executive officer Tom Guthrie said.
In any case, the remaining Nextel customers must move on, as millions of others have already, even as it meant abandoning that once ubiquitous chirp.
"Ten years ago, that was the phone of choice for our customer base," said banker Grant Burcham, CEO of Missouri Bank and Trust Co. "Now I don't see them."
Sprint's Direct Connect effort strives to do more than hang on to the remaining Nextel customers. It hopes to put the button back in business since Nextel owned push-to-talk.
"Everybody had them. Everybody had Nextel," said Doug Brown, vice president of Accurate Mechanical LLC in North Kansas City, Mo.
Nextel offered slick walkie-talkies that delivered clear and instant voice connections across a work site, across town and across the nation. And Nextel did it when folks still carried pagers.
Fast. Easy. Effective.
Bosses like them because employees tend not to mess around on push-to-talk. The chatter comes out over a speaker that others nearby can hear. It's pretty much about work, not what happened over the weekend.
An employee carrying a Nextel push-to-talk device can't hide. A supervisor or co-worker can hit the alert, and the target's phone will beep until its owner replies. Workers can't let the boss's chirp go to voice mail.
Nextel's network attracted a devoted following from construction firms, contractors, fleet dispatchers and others with employees in the field. Some companies leave the phone functions on devices turned off, using only push-to-talk.
It's that way at QuickSilver Express Courier, which shut down its own radio dispatch system a few years ago for Nextel phones. It swapped the last of its Nextel devices May 31 for new Sprint Direct Connect phones, keeping the chirp alive.
"I can't imagine we will ever get rid of that," general manager Shane Bieghler said.
Millions of others have moved off the network over the years as cellphones became smarter and capable of doing a lot more.
"It did one thing really, really well, which was the push-to-talk capability," said Bob Azzi, Sprint's senior vice president of network. "It did not offer a way to get to mobile broadband services that we've all become accustomed to."
Austin Summers became a push-to-talk fan carrying a Nextel device at Kansas real estate agency Ted Greene Co. It was easy for Summers to connect with electrical contractors and others he dealt with.
"Everybody else has moved on," Summers said. "Everybody's texting, and I hate it."