Nextel Communications has added another option to its portfolio of push-to-talk services. The new Group Connect service allows a subscriber to set up instant conversations with up to 20 other participants anywhere in the U.S. Announced in May, Group Connect extends the concept of Nextel's Direct Connect service, which offers walkie-talkie communications between any two Nextel phones.

Nextel launched Group Connect because business and government customers who use Direct Connect wanted to include more people in their calls, said spokesman Aaron Radelet. “Say you've got somebody at a construction site, and the architect is in another city, and the engineer is in another city and several other people need to be involved in the conversation. You could connect across the country,” he said.

Currently, subscribers can participate in Group Connect calls using any of three handsets, the Motorola i605, i355 or i275. To create a group, the user picks names from a list stored in the handset. The user can create a group on the fly or choose the name of a group that was created in the past and stored in memory. Each handset can store up to 25 groups.

“Another unique feature is that you can see the participants' status while on a group call,” Radelet said. “That would include if the person has joined the call, if the person is speaking at that time, if the person has opted out or if the person is not available on their cell phone.”

This is not Nextel's first P2T offering to allow group calls. Using another service — originally called Group Connect but now rebranded Talkgroup — subscribers can form groups of up to 100 participants, but only within a specific geographic region. Unlike the new Group Connect, Talkgroup doesn't allow a user to create a group spontaneously.

“You'd have to set that up beforehand via a phone number or a special Web site,” Radelet said.

One selling point for a walkie-talkie service like Direct Connect is that it sets up a call in less than a second. Nextel does this by transmitting calls entirely through its digital iDEN network. A cell phone call, in contrast, passes through both the wireless system and the public network, taking several seconds from the time the caller transmits a number to the moment the recipient answers.

Direct Connect is generally used for brief conversations, Radelet said. Nextel positions the service as a way to gain the advantages of both cell phone and two-way radio communications while carrying a single device.

Employees of the School District of Philadelphia are big fans of Direct Connect, said Vincent Thompson, the district's spokesman. District administrators, principals, facilities and security staff and others in the 270-school district often use what Thompson calls the “chirper feature” to contact one another quickly.

Thompson had not heard about Group Connect and couldn't gauge the potential demand for the service in the school district. “I don't know how many times we're going to be using the ability to dial 20 people at one time through one phone,” he said. “But it's always great for any cellular phone company to have service available that makes us more productive.”

The government of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, switched its cellular services from Verizon Wireless to Nextel early this year, choosing a plan that includes the service that is now called Talkgroup. In May, the city was working with Nextel to set up groups among some users of its 61 phones, said Ron Sabino, the city's chief technician.

“I didn't know they had [an option] where we had a little more flexibility to do it ourselves,” Sabino said. If the city had the new Group Connect service, “I would think we'd probably use it, although I don't know how often we would make changes to it” after initially fine-tuning the groups.

The talk-group concept is attractive, though, Sabino said. One reason the city decided to move to Nextel was “the possibility of setting up group connects so that maybe some of the expensive radios could go away and be replaced by phone service that allows us to have both Direct Connect and cellular phone.”