Remember back in the early 2000s when regular folks, armed with those bulky Nextel walkie-talkie phones, seemed to confuse themselves for construction workers at a job site? You’d walk down the street or through the grocery store and hear husbands and wives coordinating school pickups or the shopping list, punctuated by that familiar walkie-talkie beep.

And then, as quickly as it came, push-to-talk (PTT) seemed to disappear. But the technology remained widely used in construction, transportation, and field service — essentially any trade that put mobile workers in the field.

Now, AT&T is trying to revive push-to-talk with a pilot program, melding the PTT technology with the latest smartphones that are working their way into technicians’ toolbelts.

Pilot program for selected industries

Igor Glubochansky, executive director of product marketing management at AT&T, told the SmartVan that AT&T hasn’t yet selected companies to participate in the trial program, but that the target verticals include transportation, manufacturing, utilities, government agencies, and field service.

AT&T’s new program will modernize PTT by bringing it to out-of-the-box smartphones, beginning with Android devices that run on its network. Participants would need to download a PTT client — essentially an app — to get up and running. Ultimately, AT&T’s PTT will work on a variety of mobile devices, from smartphones to the bulkier, rugged devices that many technicians are already using.

We’ve covered the effect that mobile devices are having on field service, but this program is interesting in that it combines a relatively old, though still popular and useful, technology that many service firms still rely on (PTT) with the many benefits smartphones and apps bring to mobile workers.

“The interesting part comes in when you have a smartphone that can run apps, so you can actually punch in your work order into that device or receive a dispatch with detailed information about an order or a route,” said Glubochansky. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Combining the best of voice and apps

PTT, Glubochansky said, is important for mobile workers because it allows several people in different locations to receive a message at once without having to dial in to a conference call. Also, the walkie-talkie feature (while obnoxious when used in a supermarket) can be useful for people who need to ask a quick question while on the job.

CNET’s Lynn La reported that the AT&T PTT service will include “faster call setup times, large contact lists and groups, GPS tracking, a wider array of smartphone and feature phone options, and interoperability with current mobile radio systems such as PMR and Land Mobile Radio.”

Says Glubochansky: “This is one additional tool for customers as they consider improving compliance and communications in the field.”