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Spectrum for Safety: Is There Enough?

Carmen Nobel
News Analysis
Carmen Nobel

A band of valuable broadcast spectrum is creating controversy again, with telecom industry veteran Morgan O'Brien pushing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set aside more of the airwaves for a public safety trust, rather than auction it off as planned.

O'Brien, a founder of Nextel Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NXTL) who resigned as an employee in 2003 and left the company board in 2005, now heads a new company called Cyren Call. The company publicly debuted on Thursday with a 45-page filing to the FCC, asking that the commission set aside 30 MHz of spectrum in the upper range of the 700MHz band, in addition to the 24 MHz the FCC already has delegated for public safety.

The FCC has been planning to auction off the bulk of those 30 MHz to wireless service providers sometime in 2008 -- the auction likely would garner tens of billions for the U.S. government. (Much of the band is occupied by cable TV operators, but they are required to relocate to another band by February 2009.)

O'Brien has other ideas. In its filings, Cyren recommends that the FCC create a single, nationwide public safety network, issuing the spectrum to a public trust. The trust would then be required to lease capacity on the spectrum to commercial operators, which would pay for the network infrastructure in exchange for the right to launch commercial services on the network -- with the understanding that the services mustn't interfere with public safety.

To make its point, Cyren lists several examples of public safety emergencies in which insufficient communications systems made bad situations worse: the January 1982 crash of a commercial jetliner into the Potomac River, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in September 2005.

"We see this as a critical opportunity, and we believe policy members should act on this proposal before the spectrum is auctioned off to the private sector," says Adam Kovacevich, a spokesman for Cyren. (Kovacevich explains that the company is called Cyren Call instead of Siren Call "to convey a futuristic look and feel.")

What's in it for Cyren?

"If the FCC adopts the proposal, Cyren hopes to be in a position to serve as a network operator, to help foster rules for, and the development of, a national public safety broadband network," Kovacevich says.

The CTIA , the largest lobbyist organization for wireless carriers, naturally is opposed to Cyren's proposal. CTIA argues that the 24 MHz already allotted to public safety will be enough.

"A new debate would arrest the progress Congress has made in providing both the spectrum and funding that it has pledged to public safety," said Steve Largent, president and CEO of the CTIA (and former NFL wide receiver) in a prepared statement. "Additionally, this new proposal would deny American consumers the benefits of the spectrum allocation and assignment, both in terms of the billions of dollars in revenue that will flow into the U.S. Treasury, as well as the delivery of new services to more than 200 million U.S. wireless consumers, many of whom rely on their wireless devices for enhanced productivity, safety, and security.”

While at Nextel, O'Brien made waves in the spectrum world. In the early 2000s, public safety organizations began complaining that Nextel's signals were interfering with public safety signals in the 800MHz band. But what began as a PR nightmare for Nextel turned into a coup: To deal with the problem, the FCC approved a deal in which Nextel would move into the 1.9GHz band -- considered by many to be more valuable spectrum than the 800MHz band anyway.

"He has a lot of experience and influence in D.C.," says Phil Redman, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. , speaking of O'Brien. "Public safety and private radio is his forte."

Sprint Corp. inherited the spectrum swap when it acquired Nextel in August 2005. Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) is now in charge of that spectrum swap, which is due to be completed in June 2008. The company responded to Cyren's proposal carefully.

Cyren doesn't expect to change any industry minds overnight. "We see the filing as the beginning of the debate," Kovacevich says.

— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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