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700MHz Debate: Safety or Shopping?

Carmen Nobel
LR Mobile News Analysis
Carmen Nobel
6/27/2006

What's more important? Public safety or broadband Internet services? Industry experts tackled this loaded question today at the Wireless Communications Association International (WCA) 's annual industry conference in Washington.

In a session entitled "The Great Debate," two entrenched members of the wireless industry argued about the best use of spectrum in the 700MHz band, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to auction off early in 2008.

In one corner: Nextel Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NXTL) founder Morgan O'Brien, who argues that the FCC should instead set aside 30MHz of contiguous spectrum for public safety, in addition to the 24MHz already set aside for that purpose.

In the other: Paul Garnett, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs at the CTIA , who argues that the wireless industry needs that spectrum, both to keep up with consumer demand, and to catch up with advanced wireless markets in Europe and Asia.

"It's indisputable that we're living in a crisis," said O'Brien. "The crisis is the current state of public safety communications." In May, under the auspices of a startup called Cyren Call, O'Brien lobbied 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 to commercial operators, which would pay for the network infrastructure in exchange for the right to launch commercial services on the network -- as long as they didn't interfere with public safety. (See Spectrum for Safety: Is There Enough? .)

Playing on the fact that much of the Washington area is under water this week, O'Brien bet the audience that if they came across someone who was stuck in a car during a flash flood, they'd probably want to save that person. (He didn't go as far as to ask for a show of hands.)

"It isn't being overly dramatic to say that the policy decision we're asking Washington to make is analogous to that," O'Brien said. "There are some things that are worth taking a risk. There are some things that are necessary but not convenient. Something must be done," O'Brien said. O'Brien was pessimistic, though, about whether the spectrum would go to safety use. "But I'm not so sure that something will be done. A lot will be said because rhetoric costs nothing."

This put Garnett on the defensive. He said that the spectrum crunch has left little new bandwidth for growth of the industry.

"The U.S. mobile and wireless industry has experienced huge growth," Garnett said. "Consumer demand for wireless services is insatiable." He said the U.K. has more commercial spectrum to use than the U.S. does.

"It's not about staying ahead of our competitors, it's about playing catchup," he asserted.

Joe Ross, a wireless project manager for the government of the District of Columbia, said he supports a nationwide public safety network for the 700MHz band. But he also focused on Cyren Call's crafty public positioning as a sort of Smokey the Bear of the wireless industry.

"You guys have done an amazing job of marketing," he said. "Are you going to have Elle McPherson come and participate?" [Ed. note: No doubt that witty jape caused a titter to run through the crowd.]

Meanwhile, venture capitalists are keeping an eye on the public safety market, too. Regarding Cyren Call's proposal, "I'm not sure that's necessary," says Mark Levine, managing director of Core Capital Partners . "We are looking at [funding] technologies that will allow spectrum skipping, analog to IP, which will enable public safety communication without spectrum." He declined to name the company that Core Capital might fund.

— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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