Urgent Matters

Listen up—Morgan O’Brien tosses out his latest fantastical notion


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Morgan O'Brien--co-founder of Nextel Communications and the first to propose a nationwide broadband network for public safety--says the private-radio industry also needs to migrate to broadband technologies like LTE to flourish.

When Morgan O’Brien enters a room, one would not be surprised to hear the theme song to the TV show, “Mission Impossible.” Twice in his career, he has come up with ideas that others thought were folly. First, he bought myriad 800 MHz SMR licenses that were being used for fleet dispatch and, as such, were thought to have very limited value. Then he cobbled them together to create FleetCall, which later became nationwide wireless carrier Nextel Communications.

No one had ever built a nationwide wireless network in that fashion, and if that had been the end of it, O’Brien’s legacy would have been secure. But then, a decade or so after creating Nextel, O’Brien came up with an even more preposterous idea. He thought it feasible to create a nationwide broadband network for first responders.

O’Brien also thought it possible to convince Congress to forego millions of dollars in potential auction revenues in order to give public safety prime spectrum in the 700 MHz band adjacent to airwaves  already dedicated to first-responder communications. This large block of contiguous spectrum was essential to ensure that the broadband network would perform to public-safety’s standards.

The prevalent question being asked at the time was, “Which of these notions is the more insane?” But six years later, public safety does have the 700 MHZ D Block spectrum and a $7 billion authorization from Congress to design the network and begin its buildout. Congress also created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is overseeing the network.

So, O’Brien has proved to be the best kind of visionary—the kind whose visions actually come to fruition. This is why he had the rapt attention last week when he delivered the opening keynote at the 2013 Wireless Leadership Summit in St. Louis, which was sponsored by the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA) and USMSS, which represents U.S. dealers and radio-service shops.

O’Brien began by sharing a handful of eye-popping statistics. First, he reported that there are 200 million LTE devices in use in the United States; by 2018, a billion such devices will be in use worldwide. Second, he said that 800,000 applications have been developed for the Android and IOS platforms—each.

“These are amazing things,” especially when one considers that iPhones, Android devices and iPads have only been around for seven, six and three years, respectively, O’Brien said. He further described LTE as the “tsunami” of the wireless industry.

But O’Brien then suggested something perhaps more amazing. Even in this environment, private radio services still have a future, he said. But, for that future to be realized, the sector will have to restructure itself and, more critically, it will have to migrate from narrowband to broadband technology.

“It’s wrong to think that there is no longer a place for private radio services, and that LTE—and the networks that are using it—are just going to wipe everything away,” O’Brien said. “However, that does not mean that the enterprise private radio does not need to put LTE front and center in its thinking. … For private radio to flourish, it needs broadband.”

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

AnonymousRadio NY (not verified)
on Oct 8, 2013

And just like Nextel, NoNet will rise and fall.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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