O’Brien is happy for public safety, content with his legacy
In a column last week, I suggested that public safety owes Morgan O’Brien a huge debt of gratitude in the wake of Congress’s decision to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to the sector and provide $7 billion toward the cost of constructing the first nationwide broadband network for first responders. To be sure, public safety’s leadership deserves the lion’s share of the credit for methodically moving the ball down the field and then punching it over the goal line, in the process winning the telecommunications version of the Super Bowl.
Indeed it is a huge victory, one that not very long ago seemed impossible. It could well be argued that this is the biggest thing to happen in public-safety communications since mobile radios supplanted call boxes a half-century ago. But, while public safety basks in the glow of its momentous achievement this week during IWCE 2012 in Las Vegas, remember that the idea initially was O’Brien’s, who also was among the very few who actually believed it was possible at the beginning.
A couple of days ago, Senior Writer Donny Jackson and I got a chance to chat with O’Brien. I asked him how he felt about how things turned out. Recall that he had assembled a powerhouse team of wireless communications professionals at Cyren Call Communications. The plan was for Cyren Call to manage the affairs of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, which was to enter into a partnership with one or more commercial wireless operators to make this network come to life. If this had transpired, O’Brien and his colleagues would have cashed in handsomely. And why not? It was, after all, his brainchild.
But as often happens, the whole thing veered sideways and O’Brien and Cyren Call eventually were on the outside looking in. I asked O’Brien whether he found the experience bittersweet, analogous to getting the prettiest girl in school to agree to go to the big dance with you, only to see her go home with the varsity captain.
“I’m a big-picture person,” O’Brien said. “I’ve moved on. I look at this as being sweet, not bitter. What we envisioned actually happened, just not in the way that we imagined.”
O’Brien seems content with his legacy, which was pointing out where IP technologies were going, that public safety needed to be part of the broadband revolution, and that there was no time to waste.
“We raised a cry,” he said. “At the time, there was no broadband available for public safety, and we said that if it ever was going to happen, it needed to happen right then; otherwise, the spectrum would be gone, and the opportunity would be lost forever.”
Next on the agenda was trying to convince the commercial wireless and public-safety sectors that they needed each other — no small task.
“The commercial industry had never taken the time to get to know public safety, and vice versa,” O’Brien said.
That courtship took a turn in the right direction when public safety chose Long-Term Evolution for its next-generation communications platform, which both AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless — the nation’s two largest commercial wireless carriers — selected for their own 4G migrations. Public-safety leadership smartly concluded that there was no reason to reinvent the wheel in this regard. O’Brien maintains that he had every confidence that the two sides would get together once they started talking.
“I saw after [the] 9/11 [terrorist attacks] that getting this done was going to require a handshake between the commercial entities and public safety,” he said.
The final task held the prospect of being the most arduous, which was to convince public safety that it needed to come together for the common good — otherwise, the effort would be for naught.
O’Brien knew that this would be a bear. The old saw is that public safety would find it difficult to agree on when and where to meet, much less find consensus on any given matter. Indeed, it almost didn’t happen in the battle for the D Block and this network. At one juncture, roughly midway through the journey, the infighting between rival factions was so pronounced that speculation was running rampant that Congress was fed up and on the verge of washing its hands of the idea of a nationwide public-safety broadband network and auctioning the D Block to commercial interests, as planned. Fortunately, cooler — and saner — heads prevailed.
“This result only could have been achieved by them coming together; it needed to be done in a unified way,” O’Brien said. “I’m just so pleased for them — they pulled it off.”
Of all the things that occurred over the past six years, this arguably was the most important, because it ultimately convinced Congress that it could trust public safety with billions of dollars siphoned from the U.S. Treasury.
O’Brien reflected that he knew from the outset that the path to public safety’s broadband future would be pocked with political speed bumps, hurdles and potholes. He also understood that, when politics enter into the picture, “you might not get what you first thought.”
Though he ultimately was frozen out, O’Brien seems genuinely happy to be the one who started this snowball that eventually became an avalanche rolling down the hill.
“There’s so much good about this,’ he said. “I’m glad I did it.”
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