Back to the Future? O’Brien notes similarities, differences between past ventures, Pacific DataVision
There are those who say, “You can’t go home again.” Morgan O’Brien hopes they are wrong.
That’s because O’Brien—best known as being the co-founder of Nextel Communications—admittedly is returning to his roots, this time as vice chairman of Pacific DataVision, which recently purchased 900 MHz spectrum from Sprint that will be used to offer push-to-talk services designed for enterprise dispatch.
Will Pacific DataVision be a second coming of Nextel, which used Motorola’s iDEN technology and scattered 800 MHz spectrum to become a significant carrier in the commercial-wireless space? Not really, according to O’Brien, who notes that Pacific DataVision is not even close to having enough spectrum to compete in a broadband world for consumer market share against giants like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.
O’Brien says that a better comparison for Pacific DataVision is FleetCall, the company that O’Brien and Brian McAuley—now chairman of Pacific DataVision—founded in the late 1980s to provide push-to-talk dispatch offerings to enterprises. Once again, O’Brien’s company plans to work closely with Motorola—now known as Motorola Solutions—for technology support, this time in the form of “digital-radio technology,” according to a Pacific DataVision press release.
“We’re not providing telephone interconnect, so this is not a new phone system,” O’Brien said. “This is a new radio system.
“It’s the same as the high-site 800 MHz SMR FleetCall [used]. It’s very similar from an architecture standpoint, but it’s much more efficient.”
Before being sold to Sprint in a deal announced in 2004, Nextel Communications regularly delivered the highest average-revenue-per-user (ARPU) numbers in the wireless industry, based largely on its push-to-talk capabilities that appealed to enterprise customers. Commercial carriers have been providing various forms of push-to-talk services for years, but many enterprises still longed for the kind of push-to-talk functionality that was available over Nextel’s iDEN network that Sprint shut down last year.
That proved to be the genesis of the Pacific DataVision venture, according to O’Brien.
“We’re just interested in going back to our roots and providing these services,” he said. “We saw that as an opportunity to bring back a product that we know works and see if we could modernize it, enhance it and offer it at an attractive price.”
This modernization includes a suite of applications developed by Pacific DataVision that is designed to make dispatch easier and more efficient, O’Brien said.
“The contrast is that we have this enhanced functionality, because we have web-based, cloud-based services that we can provide through the radio system,” O’Brien said. “And, of course, the devices are much more sophisticated, although they are still two-way radios.”
For many years, Nextel gained a reputation as a company that was looking to buy spectrum. O’Brien said he “always” is interested in acquiring airwaves but notes that Pacific DataVision will not be as aggressive as Nextel was during its expansion period.
“We have a limited amount of funding,” O’Brien said. “This is not like Nextel, where we had customers that were constantly demanding more and we were constantly buying spectrum to throw in there, like stoking a furnace. This is different, so we’re not quite in the situation we were at Nextel, in terms of buying spectrum.
“But, if you’re going to have as strong a spectrum position as we have, you’re always interested in improving the spectrum, rationalizing it and increasing its value.”
One similarity to past ventures that O’Brien clearly enjoys is the people he is working with today—a group that includes a lot of familiar faces.
“For me, being able to work with Brian McAuley, John Pescatore, Jay Paull, Chris Rogers, Leon Frazier—all people that I have enjoyed working with so much in the past—and have very exciting spectrum, a new technology like broadband and to be able to raise the money to do some interesting stuff, it’s really wonderful,” O’Brien said. “I’m so lucky. I’m as happy as can be.”