Former Nextel head targets solutions for disgraceful public safety communications
September 19, 2005 -- The co-founder and former Vice Chairman of Nextel Communications says that the condition of public safety first responders' communications in the United States is a "total disgrace by any standard," and believes he might have a couple of ideas that can help solve the problem.
Widely regarded as a pioneer and visionary in the wireless industry, Morgan E. O'Brien informed key executives at the PCIA Wireless Infrastructure Conference on September 13 that he is obsessed with finding interoperability and redundancy solutions, but doubts that any breakthrough will come from established companies.
"I don't have the recipe for success. What I do have," O'Brien said, "are some of the ingredients for success." Two of O'Brien's solution elements are: 700 MHz and entrepreneurism.
Experience may provide link to future
O'Brien has championed the need for better public safety communications long before 9/11. In 2002 he helped create Nextel's PSAP Readiness Fund, an organization that coordinated the dissemination of $25 million to the public safety community to improve wireless enhanced 911 services across the country. Most recently, he was instrumental in working with public safety authorities and the FCC to help resolve interference problems in the 800 MHz spectrum.
"My first ingredient," O'Brien said, "is 700 MHz is the rational basis, the only sensible place this system must be built."
He explained to the Hollywood, FL audience during his keynote address that he believes that his experiences have a link to the future.
"I had made the observation in 1988, after we had started with a few SMR companies, that we in the industry that we were part of were heading about 60 miles per hour into a brick wall," O'Brien said.
"The wall that we had was an antiquated technology, inadequate spectrum; this is a peculiar one, way too many customers. We also had a regulatory environment that was cumbersome; it was hard to believe in retrospect how cumbersome it was."
But out of that realization came a whole series of actions that Nextel took. O'Brien says those business decisions still have applicability to the future. He said Nextel decided to put every chip on one number, betting that the Federal Communications Commission would make decisions in the public interest.
O'Brien said their first proposal required a radical restructuring of the rules and a complete shift in paradigm. It was designed around greater spectrum efficiency, disruptive competition, plus innovations of leapfrog technologies.
"Struggling with the fact that as we were attempting to move into new technology and fall into a competitive environment with the rest of the wireless world, we came to the conclusion that we had to fundamentally restructure the way frequencies had been assigned, including having our competitors change frequencies so that we could become more efficient. When we first started talking about it internally there was some doubt in our minds as to whether we would be able to get the FCC to go with us," O'Brien said.
"In the end," O'Brien explained, "the FCC looked at what's in the public interest. They followed the technology, rewarded innovation and relied upon competition in the marketplace to achieve public interest." Nextel's success with the FCC was further rewarded when Sprint acquired the company this year for $35 billion.
Following Hurricane Katrina's destruction, Senator John McCain has sponsored legislation to quickly free up airwaves from television broadcasters for first responders representing 24MHz of spectrum for public safety purposes from the 746-806 MHz band. O'Brien, however, believes that 700 MHz should be the primary frequency used and envisions that the FCC will address the current allocation and add an additional 700 MHz spectrum to provide part of the solution.
Entrepreneurial spirit is second element
He can visualize a single 700 MHz nationwide public safety network, but he says "I can't imagine that's the way it would start," stating that it would begin with many entrepreneurs' new technologies and their dreams of riches.
That's ingredient number two of O'Brien's work in progress recipe. He believes that a substantial influx of entrepreneurism and venture capital is needed to fuel the development of ultimate safety solutions.
O'Brien doesn't expect technology breakthroughs to come from established companies.
"It just seems like it's never done. It seems like it's just not in the nature of things. So I would expect to see inundation, the creation of an entrepreneurial opportunity on a large scale, leapfrogging technology and disruptive competition. All of these elements in the past have moved the industry forward, not in a nice steady progressive way that big companies naturally like," he said.
Motorola Inc. and M/A-Com dominate the market for emergency-dispatch radio equipment in the United States, which has generated $25 billion worth of business since 2000, according to IMS Research in Texas.
Motorola and M/A Com are currently developing 700 MHz technologies. The intent is to manufacture radios that are both 700 MHz and 800 MHz compatible so they can be used anywhere.
In part, Nextel's meteoric success was through the assistance of Motorola when they introduced their breakthrough iDEN technology in 1996, marking the first combination of enhanced digital cellular, two-way radio and text/numeric paging in one phone from the company that was founded in 1928.
Currently the public safety portion of 700 MHz is set up for the best match of local operations and interoperability. The band has a formal structure designed specifically for new digital technologies.
Although 700 MHz is a fresh piece of spectrum that can be molded into one which all agencies could utilize for interoperability and mutual coordination, some consultants say that if VHF and UHF were taken away then the advantages of these bands in range and coverage would be lost. They say that rural America cannot use 800 MHz much less 700 MHz. The cost to build these systems in small communities would be prohibitive.
O'Brien said that major mergers such as the Sprint Nextel marriage are based upon a huge scale, but asked, "how do you address public safety when the fact is there is no scale?"
Federal money will not provide the solution
"The solution to this conundrum is not a monstrous check written by the Federal Government to procure a single system, which basically the first day it starts to get installed it's already starting to become obsolete," he said.
While O'Brien was speaking, 26 law enforcement agencies were queing up to obtain their share of a $92.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop and purchase interoperable communications networks that enable emergency service personnel to communicate directly during crises.
"There is no class of users that has a more demanding set of requirements. Any break in communications, any failure, any delay can be truly fatal. This is a user group that needs everything that today's and tomorrow's technology can offer whether its in terms or voice, whether it's push to talk or regular telephone, data or video," O'Brien said.
O'Brien's presentation before PCIA members was his first major speaking engagement since he retired from Nextel following the Sprint Nextel merger. Although he and his wife are currently building their dream home in the French West Indies, he has no plans for retiring and is dedicated to exploring leading edge technologies and public safety communications problems.
The 60-year-old former FCC attorney is convinced that experience can outdistance the exuberance of youth in this race and says that the problems will be solved by "somebody who understands what the elements are that would be necessary to do something like this. It may not be me, but it will be somebody that comes up with this formula, a winning formula that has most of these ingredients in it. When they do, when it gets presented to the FCC, the status quo will be shaken to its foundation. And the FCC will do what the FCC does, it will make a decision to accept the disruptive competition and bring in the leapfrogging technology."
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