O’Brien unveils 700 MHz plan
Attempting to address a “public-safety communications crisis,” wireless innovator Morgan O’Brien released his much-anticipated plan to have the FCC reallocate 30 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to be used in a nationwide, next-generation wireless broadband network for both public-safety and commercial services.
In the proposal, O’Brien asks the FCC to reallocate nationwide spectrum from 747 MHz to 762 MHz and from 777 MHz to 792 MHz — swaths scheduled for a January 2008 commercial auction — to this shared network. This 30 MHz of spectrum would be separate from the 24 MHz of spectrum already earmarked for public safety in the 700 MHz band, said O’Brien, chairman of Cyren Call Communications.
The commercial operators could use the network to offer their services using the considerable spectral capacity not used by public-safety users on a daily basis. But O’Brien emphasized that public-safety traffic would be given priority in the network, even if doing so would result in degradation of the commercial services offered by the provider during a heavy traffic period for public safety, such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“Unless public safety has the preferred position, there is no way public safety could — or should — agree to share a network, so that is an absolutely essential element of our proposed design,” O’Brien said during a conference call with reporters.
Cyren envisions the terrestrial, wireless IP network consisting of 37,000 cell sites serving 99% of the U.S. population, O’Brien said. A complementary satellite-based IP network would fill in coverage gaps and provide redundancy in situations where the terrestrial network is unavailable — something that happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Although public safety would own the licenses for the 700 MHz spectrum, the proposed arrangement represents a significant shift from the traditional practice in which public/safety entities are required to fund, build and maintain their systems. This public-private partnership essentially would relieve public-safety entities of the need for large capital expenditures to build networks, but many may be wary of depending on a commercial entity to deploy and maintain a network to meet its needs.
“From the public-safety side, this is going to be a whole new thought process,” said Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department.
But Werner encouraged public-safety officials to be open-minded to the O’Brien proposal, noting the fact that funding limitations prevent public safety from upgrading its technology on a regular basis and that having a separate — and much smaller — market forces public-safety gear to be more expensive than comparable commercial products.
“I don’t know all of the ramifications or if it’s the right answer,” Werner said. “All I know is that the present paradigm is broken and doesn’t work.”
Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee, also said he believes the O’Brien proposal is worthy of public-safety consideration.
“It’s a very bold and exciting proposal,” McEwen said. “While I realize there’s a number of significant challenges, the concept of a nationwide, next-generation public-safety network would be very good for us.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Cyren proposal is the fact that Congress already has passed a budget plan with the expectation that 60 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum would be auctioned to commercial operators in a bidding process that would generate at least $10 billion in new revenues. O’Brien’s proposal, if enacted, would cut the amount of spectrum being auctioned in half, and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association quickly expressed its opposition to the plan.
Despite these challenges, O’Brien said he and other Cyren officials plan to make the effort, beginning with speaking engagements nationwide.
“We’re acting as if our lives depend on this because — in some cases — they do depend on it,” O’Brien said.