While many in the two-way radio world may be chattering about Morgan O'Brien's proposal for a nationwide, IP-based 700 MHz broadband network for public safety, one group apparently hasn't caught the buzz: the owners and managers of local land mobile radio sales and service shops. Many dealers asked to comment on O'Brien's plan, which would reallocate 30 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band to a Public Safety Broadband Trust, said they didn't know about the proposal or had heard only its broad outlines.

“I did not attend Mr. O'Brien's [keynote] speech; therefore, I will not be able to comment,” said the CEO of a West Coast Motorola dealership who had just returned from IWCE 2006 in Las Vegas. Other dealers were able to discuss the proposal — and the business opportunities it might present — only after reviewing an MRT article (MRT, June, page 52) explaining O'Brien's plan.

Even then, the details O'Brien has divulged so far left them with too many questions to determine how they might make money selling equipment for or servicing the new network — if it's built.

“It could be a good opportunity … [but] I don't know enough of how they're going to achieve actually building out the system, what specific products they're going to go with and things of that nature. So it would be a little harder to judge exactly what the total impact to us would be,” said Bryan Kocher, vice president of Williams Communications, a dealer of radio equipment from M/A-COM, Maxon, Midland and Kenwood.

Under the plan proposed by O'Brien and his firm, Cyren Call Communications, the Public Safety Broadband Trust would hold the licenses for the nationwide, interoperable network designed to carry voice and data. But it also would lease the spectrum to commercial operators. Those companies would build, operate and maintain a series of public-safety-grade networks covering 99% of the U.S. population, with a satellite-based IP network to fill in the gaps in low-population areas.

In return for their investment, operators could use excess capacity on the networks to sell commercial services. Public-safety traffic would always get priority, however, even when that would mean degrading the commercial service.

One big question for LMR dealers is what roles, if any, they might play in equipping and maintaining such a system. Most of today's public-safety radio licenses belong to relatively small agencies, and many of those rely on local shops to supply their equipment and keep it running, said Ron Haraseth, director of automated frequency coordination at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

For the design and construction of entire radio systems, larger agencies usually bid out the work to major radio manufacturers or consulting and engineering firms. But for the smaller public-safety agencies, whose networks include only two or three base stations, “almost always it ends up being a local radio shop they're dealing with,” he said.

But in a scenario where commercial wireless carriers — such as Verizon Wireless and Cingular — win the right to build and operate all or portions of a nationwide public-safety network, it's not clear what role local radio shops would play. Would carriers use in-house staff to erect antennas, install base stations and keep infrastructure in good repair? Would they use their own sales organizations to sell mobile radio equipment? If so, many LMR dealers could see their businesses shrivel and die.

Or, on a more optimistic note, commercial carriers could forge partnerships with the mobile radio dealers that already work with public-safety customers in each market. However, not everyone is convinced.

“Based on recent past experience, [the proposed network] would just be taking business away from us,” said Sal Dragotta, general manager of Viking Communications, an EFJohnson dealership. “They're going to try and do a cellular-type system, where it's a black box — you go to a consumer outlet, you buy the product. I don't think they're going to want to share that with us.”

When cellular communications were new, wireless carriers “were beating our doors down to be cellular agents,” an option Viking never embraced, Dragotta said. “Once they got established and they got all these small outlets, they didn't even want to talk to us anymore.”

But Williams Communications' Kocher foresees potential opportunities. “Dependent on the structure of how they would handle the maintenance side, they're going to need support from guys in the industry,” he said. “They're going to need people that know how to fix a system.”

On the retail side, “They couldn't do it without their local radio dealers and the relationships the radio dealers already have with their customers,” he said. “It would take us to be able to bring that product to the public-safety market and convince them that this is a viable solution for them.”

Because O'Brien's proposed network would be IP-based, a radio dealer that wanted to work with its operators and subscribers would need to be IP-savvy. That's not a problem for Williams Communications. As a M/A-COM dealer “we already implement IP-based systems all over the place,” Kocher said.

Myron Polulak, vice president and CEO of New England Communications, a Motorola dealership, envisions a possible role as a reseller. “This would be the introduction of a whole new technology platform to be used by commercial and public sector customers. So there has to be a significant distribution strategy involved,” he said.

But public-safety agencies probably won't abandon private systems to move their voice traffic onto a public network, Polulak said. “Any time you're sharing a system for mission-critical voice communications, there's some agita there.” The new network could have appeal as a data conduit, but then “there are manufacturers coming out with significant data rates for private systems.”

Mike Simpson, vice president of operations and general manager for Central Communications and Electronics, believes O'Brien's proposed network might offer some new business opportunities.

“If there were a problem with the cell sites, the field equipment, we probably would be called on locally to do the servicing,” he said.

But given what he knows about the proposed network thus far, Simpson — whose dealership offers ICOM, Motorola and Tait equipment, plus other wireless products and solutions — isn't sure he'd want to pursue those opportunities.

“It seems that this is a ploy — and ‘ploy’ is a dangerous word, but a ploy — for a commercial offering to get a deal on the spectrum that would be involved by leveraging public-safety participation in the network,” he said. “To use public safety in this case to drive, or at least reduce, the price of spectrum needed for a commercial system seems a little suspect to us.”

So far, the proposal doesn't indicate what users would pay for field equipment or airtime, Simpson said. Nor has Cyren Call thus far explained the mechanism operators would use to make sure public-safety traffic always got top priority.

Given O'Brien's background as co-founder of Nextel Communications, “it appears that maybe he's creating ‘Newtel’ instead of ‘Nextel’ with this new system,” Simpson said. That makes him wonder whether the plan really has the best interests of public-safety users in mind.

“We probably would see some financial gain from it,” he said. “But that's not necessarily what it's all about. Because the way we stay in business is to protect our bread and butter and the people that have brought us to where we are now, and that's public safety.”

For Clifford Zwarkowski, general manager of Cazcom/High Desert Communications, questions also outweigh any notions of cashing in on the new network. In his case, many of the questions concern how long it would take to make the plan a reality.

First, the public-safety community would need to develop standards addressing interoperability and encryption on the network, said Zwarkowski, whose company sells and services M/A-COM equipment. Based on the slow pace of development for APCO's Project 25 standard — work on Phase 2 of the standard is ongoing, more than a decade after the standard first was contemplated — “we're talking 20-some years here, just in the development of a standard.”

Then, once that's accomplished, “the Motorolas and the M/A-COMs and the Kenwoods are going to have to try to develop the product. That's going to take a significant period of time,” followed by the manufacturing rollout. “We could be talking 25 to 30 years before it becomes a viable scenario.”

Zwarkowski also wondered about the costs involved. “Not all departments have ready cash to pay for new 700 MHz equipment to participate in a nationwide, interoperable type of system.”

Finally, any interoperable network needs command-and-control protocols to establish which agencies and individuals will talk to which others in specific scenarios. Without them, ad hoc decisions could lead to chaos, he said.

INQUIRING MINDS

Dealers have many questions about Cyren Call's proposed 700 MHz nationwide public-safety network.

Here are a few:

  • What communications technology and subscriber equipment will it use?

  • What will it cost public-safety agencies to participate?

  • Is this simply a ploy to fund a commercial service by leveraging public safety?

  • How will the network guarantee priority to public-safety traffic?

  • How long will it take to establish standards and develop products for the network?

  • Who will develop command and control protocols?