Sprint’s 3G walkie-talkie service racks up 1M users

Sprint’s(s s) Nextel network may have plenty of limitations, but its walkie-talkie push-to-talk (PTT) service isn’t one of them. For more than a decade Direct Connect has been the gold standard for PTT services popular with blue collar workers and teenagers alike. That’s why when Sprint decided to shut down its Nextel iDEN network starting this year, it took a big risk.

But Sprint had a backup plan. It relaunched Direct Connect last year as an IP service over its 3G CDMA network and even extended basic connectivity to its 2G footprint creating a far bigger coverage area than Nextel ever offered. Apparently that work is paying off, at least in part. Sprint has succeeded in signing up 1 million subscribers to Sprint Direct Connect, the carrier revealed today.

Nextel has been a big drag on Sprint’s subscriber growth for years, but last quarter the rate of defections picked up steam as Sprint announced it would shut down the network for good next June. In the second quarter, 1 million Nextel and Boost customers dumped their iDEN phones, but Sprint and its other prepaid brands managed to reclaim 600,000 of those customers.

We’re almost at the end of the third quarter, and the Nextel exodus has probably only grown larger as Sprint has shut down more iDEN cell sites. At GigaOM’s Mobilize conference this week, Sprint CTO Stephen Bye will be on hand to discuss what Sprint plans to do with that old Nextel spectrum – namely build an LTE network.

Push-to-talk no longer has the caché it once enjoyed – we don’t hear the familiar chirp of Nextel phones emanating from suit pockets and purses like we did back in the mid-aughts. But the service still has a sizable fan base, and other companies are looking to capitalize on Nextel’s demise. FierceWireless reported earlier this week that AT&T(s t) is preparing to launch an enhanced version of its own Kodiak Networks-built PTT application in November. Third party developer Wave Connections has also launched a competing service, which has the advantage of working across carriers while running on smartphones.