LAS VEGAS — Public-safety officials at IWCE 2006 expressed considerable interest in Cyren Call Communication's proposal for a public/private partnership to build and maintain a nationwide wireless broadband network in the 700 MHz band, but most only see such a solution as a supplement to their existing land mobile radio networks — at least for now.

Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O'Brien made his first public presentation of the proposal during the show's opening keynote. Cyren Call proposes the FCC license half of the 60 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum scheduled to be auctioned in 2008 to a public-safety broadband trust, which would lease the frequencies to commercial operators to construct interconnected public-safety-grade networks with excess capacity that could be used for commercial offerings (see story on page 52).

“The spectrum, in essence, subsidizes the building of the network,” O'Brien said in his keynote.

O'Brien said public safety turning to taxpayers for additional funds for communications networks is not realistic, describing it as “a well that has run dry.” He asked for public safety's support of the proposal, which he said finally would give first responders unprecedented purchasing power and a communications business model that is self-sustaining.

“You can love our idea or hate it, but please don't say to me, ‘I really love your idea, but I can't support it because I'm afraid it will offend a customer or [someone else],’” O'Brien said.

Indeed, outright support of the Cyren Call proposal could lead to hard feelings on several fronts. For instance, many LMR supporters questioned whether consideration of the Cyren Call proposal would jeopardize public-safety political efforts and planning regarding the 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band already earmarked for first responders. Others questioned whether public safety should trust mission-critical communications to any network operated by a commercial provider.

And in perhaps the most telling statement, one audience member in a session said some LMR cohorts fear that “this is the blacksmith's convention of 100 years ago, and we're being obsoleted.”

That should not be a concern, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's communications and technology committee.

“I do not see that replacing our systems, and I hope it does not detract from people buying and upgrading future land mobile systems because I think that would be a bad thing to have happen,” McEwen said.

Steve Devine, patrol frequency coordinator for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the proposal would be more attractive to public safety should entities be allowed to “get their feet wet” by utilizing the data aspects of a 700 MHz system while maintaining their existing private voice systems. However, Devine acknowledged that a supplemental network might not be as appealing to Congress as one that might eventually replace the disparate systems in existence today.

McEwen said he supports the FCC seeking comments on the Cyren Call proposal because he does not believe an interoperability plan to link existing LMR systems via IP is “practical or reasonable.”

“Having a nationwide data network with voice-over-IP capabilities is a great idea because we do not have any nationwide roaming capability in the public-safety land mobile community, and it's unlikely that we will ever have that,” he said.

John Powell, senior consulting engineer for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, believes a public debate on the Cyren Call proposal would be beneficial because it would spur “a discussion that should have taken place a long time ago” regarding the future of public-safety communications.

Whether that debate will happen remains in question. The Cyren Call team will travel throughout the country to explain the proposal and attempt to gather support for the FCC to seek comments on it. However, John Melcher, Cyren Call executive vice president, acknowledged that the FCC is unlikely to open such a proceeding without a blessing from Congress, which only months ago passed a law mandating the FCC auction the 700 MHz spectrum.

One source close to the Cyren Call effort indicated that the FCC proceeding must be opened by October for the proposal to have a chance of being accepted. Other observers said they might not even have that much time, as many members of Congress are focusing on campaigns to get re-elected in November — a task much easier to achieve with financial and political support from the wireless carriers expecting to bid in the 700 MHz auction.

“If we don't hear them doing anything in the next month, I don't see it happening,” said one Beltway source. “I don't know if Congress wants to open that can of worms this close to the election.”