Congress needs more evidence for 700 MHz replay
In the 1990s, the National Football League adopted instant replay as a method for teams to correct calls they believe referees on the field missed. The controversial decision proved to be easy fodder for sports talk shows to fill an hour, as people debated replay’s impact on the flow of the game, the confidence of referees and other matters.
Everyone knew that such a furor was coming, but the NFL took the plunge anyway, because the league was tired of being embarrassed regularly on highlight shows depicting referees blowing a call critical to the outcome of a game. It’s not that the referees were doing a bad job, but asking seven officials at ground level to see everything that transpires with a ball and 22 premium athletes in such a large playing area is a recipe for mistakes.
Clearly, a change was needed, and the technology existed to correct the situation. The question was how to apply the technology in a manner that made sense.
Today, replay generally is an accepted part of the NFL, along with the critical phrase that made it palatable to many, especially referees: “irrefutable evidence.” The ruling on the field — based on the judgment of the referees at the time — stands unless the replay shows conclusively that the call should be changed.
This week’s action on Capitol Hill regarding the Cyren Call proposal for the 700 MHz band offers a striking parallel to the evolution of instant replay.
Clearly, there is a problem in public-safety communications. After all, thousands of first responders have to use 18-year-old handsets at a time when the average cell phone is replaced every 18 months. Even when new equipment is purchased, it’s often obsolete the day it is put into the field.
Logic and the rapid advancement of wireless technology suggest that there has to be a better way. Cyren Call’s proposal of a public-private partnership using 30 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum earmarked for commercial operators sounds promising, largely because it offers hope that public-safety personnel could have access to the latest technologies on a sustainable basis.
Opposition to the notion has been predictable. It’s a complex proposal, and this week’s hearing made it abundantly clear that many senators simply don’t understand it. In addition, the powerful wireless-carrier lobby predictably doesn’t want the Cyren Call plan to happen, because commercial operators would rather have 60 MHz to bid on than 30 MHz, for a variety of business reasons.
That said, the notion is intriguing enough that the FCC has opened a proceeding on the model — albeit in a different spectrum band — presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has agreed to sponsor enabling legislation, and the Senate Commerce Committee decided to conduct a hearing on the matter. An industry lobby group even paid Criterion Economics to write a report on the plan, a tactic usually employed only when an opposing view gains momentum.
Clearly, there is some sentiment in Congress to consider the Cyren Call proposal, even though it would mean revisiting a law passed just a year ago. But, like an NFL referee watching a replay under the hood of a camera on the sidelines, Congress needs to be sure that such a public-private partnership is clearly a better alternative than the status quo before it will change a call it made so recently.
Many aspects of the Criterion report can be refuted, but the notion that the Cyren Call economic model won’t work has to be troubling for Congress. This public-private partnership won’t work without industry, and industry is saying the economics don’t work.
It is interesting that industry believes a public-private partnership can work regarding spectrum previously allocated to public safety, but not on the commercial spectrum in the 700 MHz band. Still, the Criterion report raises the question we have asked from Day One: How can a commercial operator keep its stockholders happy while building a hardened, public-safety-grade network that includes coverage in sparsely populated locations that will generate little or no revenue?
Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O’Brien insists that the business model works, and his reputation as a successful entrepreneur has been enough to get the proposal consideration. But to make this vision a reality, more details are needed. Carriers or private investors need to express support for the notion, and a realistic picture of how this will work — potential technologies, governance and business models — needs to be painted in a way that’s understandable to elected officials.
Congress can’t expect “irrefutable evidence” in this case, but it needs more than O’Brien’s “trust me” stance before it will replay the 700 MHz legislative dance completed a year ago.
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