A very long time ago, snake-oil salesmen plied their craft in fledgling towns and remote outposts throughout the American West. They would stand on the back of their horse-drawn carts and extol the virtues of the magical elixirs, guaranteed to cure whatever ailed you. As legend has it, they never divulged what was in the bottle, their clever banter enabling them to sidestep the most probing questions. That didn't prevent them from selling bottle after bottle to their unsuspecting dupes, so compelling was their pitch.

As I watched Morgan O'Brien deliver his keynote address at IWCE 2006 last month, the immediate image that jumped into my head was that of a snake-oil salesman. O'Brien claims to have the cure for what ails public-safety communications nationwide. But he has yet to tell us what's in the bottle.

This is not to disparage O'Brien's reputation nor denigrate his proposal, which Senior Writer Donny Jackson exhaustively covers in stories on pages 6 and 52. I don't think O'Brien has been short on details — for instance, in-depth business cases for commercial operators and public-safety entities — because he is trying to deceive anyone. Rather, I think he has been evasive because even he doesn't know what's in the bottle at this point.

Some will use the current lack of details and evasiveness as an excuse to dismiss O'Brien's concept out of hand. That would be wrong-headed. In fact, it is precisely because of the lack of details that the proposal to create a nationwide public-safety-grade broadband network in the 700 MHz band must be examined and debated thoroughly, as O'Brien has requested.

Given the complexity of what O'Brien is proposing, it would be unreasonable for anyone to expect him to have all the answers. That's why it is imperative that the FCC grant his request to open a proceeding seeking public comment on the proposal. It is only after analytical dissection and spirited debate that many of the details sorely lacking right now will emerge.

Great ideas rarely just appear, like the proverbial light bulb overhead. Rather, they evolve. If you find that statement dubious, consider this: The inventor Leonardo DaVinci first contemplated flight in the late 1400s, unsuccessfully testing a flying machine in 1496; it wasn't until 1903 — more than four centuries later — that the Wright Brothers finally achieved DaVinci's dream at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

O'Brien has the beginnings of a great idea. The FCC and public safety should give it a chance to evolve. But at the same time, they also should guard against being sold a bottle of snake oil.