Morgan O’Brien addresses APCO’s national conference
This is the unofficial text of a speech delivered to the closing banquet audience at the 67th Annual APCO International Conference and Exposition on Aug. 9 at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. The speech was delivered by Morgan O’Brien, vice chairman of Nextel Communications, Reston, VA:
(Mr. O’Brien thanked APCO for the opportunity to speak and began his remarks by talking about having co-founded Fleet Call, the company that became Nextel.)
First of all, I was the founder with the original idea. No way would the company that has become Nextel have succeeded without hundreds and thousands of creative people who have become employees and my friends.
I want to tie that back into what I’ve come to talk with you tonight about: what it takes sometimes to assess the risks in an idea. The difficulty lies in having that idea come to fruition. As an industry, we face an opportunity and challenge like that, and I have been through it, lived through it, and I’m still here to talk about it.
As the co-chairman now of Nextel, I am also no longer the supreme commander of the Nextel armies, but I am a commander. In our case, the soldiers are legions of lawyers. Some of them are here tonight. They are well-trained, well-disciplined, battle-tested and not afraid of hand-to-hand combat.
The reason we have developed this Nextel army is, if you think about the wireless industry, you should think of us as the tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks. We have had to fight for a seat at the table. That’s part of the cultural heritage of Nextel.
I do not describe us, Nextel, or me, as pugnacious or provocative, but you could describe us as territorial and aggressive. When I think about the way I look at the world and react to it (and maybe this is a peculiar trait), but if someone rushes in to my office and says we have a big problem, my reaction is a big smile—and this is terrific, and adrenalin pumps.
Nextel has that cultural bias, and I am part of that and have been from the inception. To say and to set aside completely the problem I want to talk about tonight. The situation is completely the opposite of calling for those warlike tactics and thinking. I’m here in a new role, which is heading up the “Nextel Peace Corps.”
We’re here to talk about an issue that has developed where interference has developed between Nextel’s fully licensed systems and public safety systems. What is at risk is some potential risk to human life. The last thing I want to do is approach this issue, which we must approach together, in any form of combative sense. Think of me as the peace ambassador from Nextel. I asked the board for this responsibility. There is no more important issue for our company. I’m here to engage you in helping us to identify this problem and work out a solution.
When you say Nextel is setting out to fix a particular problem, it isn’t corporations that do anything. It’s individuals. I was happy to get the invitation to come here and say that at Nextel we are the team that has taken on the assignment of addressing this problem and working through it to a solution. We wanted to introduce ourselves to you and indicate to you how important it is that constructive solutions be found. And to say we understand our responsibility and role in solving the problem. Our expectation is that we will bear a share of the financial responsibility.
Let’s talk about the problem. As we have deployed and grown from our 1987 idea to the large business of today, our configuration of today has been low-elevation sites and more intensive frequency reuse. That configuration is ever-increasing as systems mature with intensive sharing of channels. That’s in contrast to the public safety design, which is almost the opposite.
Yours is high-elevation sites, ours is low-elevation.
Yours is analog modulation, ours is digital modulation.
Yours is a few sites, ours is many sites.
Each of us has our own objectives in design. Each has a license from the FCC, but we’re operating in an interleaved frequency plan, which is a holdover from 25 years.
I have been there from the beginning, and I am 100% proud of Nextel’s system design. In its 6:1 dispatch mode, it makes the most efficient use of spectrum. We have taken spectrum originally considered fully utilized with one million subscribers, and now we’re serving eight million. We’re proud of the system and service that has been so successful.
The problem is interleaving of spectrum.
On the other hand, as citizens we understand and recognize priority of communications of public safety on its frequencies and the crucial nature of those communications. And the unthinkable problem of those communications being interrupted. We have the classic rock and a hard place. Our system, our objectives, our imperatives to grow, vs. your obligations and the hierarchy of values of safety of life and property.
We see two solutions, short-term and long-term.
I have asked for the responsibility of leading Nextel’s forces in putting together our short-term solution. I think it’s fair to say that we now have operating throughout the company teams of engineers and lawyers and consultants who are getting to the bottom of the interference problems. My background is legal, not technical. My understanding of the issue is that, as we bring our transmitters lower and lower and put more and more frequencies in each cell site, there is a greater probability that public safety mobile or handset will be in vicinity of relatively high-powered, “right there” cell site and farther from its high-elevation base station site there, is an intermodulation issue and a functional problem with a public safety unit within some radius.
We have addressed the most serious problems so far. There are short-term things we can do. We are working with your representatives to ensure that we don’t have critical accidents while working out a longer-term solution.
We need a long-term solution because the short-term fix is doomed to fail over time. As our system matures, we bring our antenna locations and heights down lower and lower. As we split cells and use frequencies more intensively, we multiply the problem of interference with more and more units in wider areas public safety. We’re on a collision course.
Short term, we can reprogram and get by. We have some successes we can point to. Long-term we need to address this in a different way.
My No. 1 objective in coming here is to put a human face on Nextel and indicate to you that our current plan, because we are so concerned that there not be serious accidents because of interference, we intend to file with FCC in October our proposal for a long-term fix of this problem.
In preparing this proposal, we and the public safety community have to walk a certain tightrope. On the one hand, this issue is complex, and it is a time-consuming process. The “due process” process takes time. On the other hand, the time we’re playing with, as we work the process, increases every day the risk that something will happen.
I am sharing with you my concern that if Nextel and I are on one side or the other of that tightrope, it will be the trying-to-push-it-through-faster side. I recognize the responsibility that some regrettable accident shouldn’t take place. We will recommend a more global fix.
Without taking tonight to go into the details, I’ll mention the principles.
The first principle is that interleaving of spectrum must give way to contiguous blocks of spectrum to run long term. There must be new band plan to accommodate that reality.
Time is of the essence. While it feels like something that should take years to begin to address, I don’t think we have years.
We have to come up with some creative financing proposals because the solution will be expensive. Nextel is prepared to pay its fair share. But we need to work together to find ways to finance this that move us through the process promptly.
I have been in this business for 30 years. Some remember me from the past and think, “I thought he was dead.” For me, this issue is a wonderful opportunity for me of the things I’ve worked on, and I’ve been an observer and a participant. I wouldn’t give back a day of experiences. This is the culmination.
Yes, it’s a big problem. But as we work our through this, we as an industry will lay the foundation for the next 30 years of land mobile communications. We have the opportunity to do something so special.
Going back to the beginning I can say, when we started Fleet Call, which became Nextel, it looked formidable. Most knowledgeable people told me I was crazy. It hasn’t been easy. We made plenty of mistakes. I know that you can set a goal when there’s enough motivation there where something must be done. I can’t think of anything more important than eliminating the potential that lives could be lost because of interference.
This is the beginning of the process. You may find me annoying for my persistence. You will learn to trust me and the Nextel team that our motivation is the same as yours. We have the utmost respect for the mission-critical nature of your radio systems and the importance of our participating with you to make sure it continues.
If we do this right, our successors will marvel that we put aside differences, overcame prejudices, and overthrew the status quo in a partnership between public carriers such as Nextel and others and the private sector. What an opportunity. I again am so grateful to have this opportunity to speak to you. I say “thank you” to the APCO board. As I say, I can’t wait to get started.