Private Fix for Radio Woes?

Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O'Brien proposes that private firms build a wireless network for emergency personnel.
Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O'Brien proposes that private firms build a wireless network for emergency personnel. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

Morgan O'Brien has an audacious idea.

The man who helped found Nextel Communications Inc. and made millions in the process, hopes to use private money to build a nationwide wireless network for first responders that could prevent communication breakdowns such as those after Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said yesterday.

O'Brien's dream is to persuade Congress to set aside a slice of radio spectrum worth billions of dollars to the federal Treasury and put it into a public trust, which then would lease it to private companies that would finance the network.

Analysts described this proposal as a near impossibility on Capitol Hill given the reluctance of lawmakers to relinquish any revenue in an era of deep budget deficits.

Speaking at a news conference in Washington, O'Brien argued that his idea is a way to find money for a new network badly needed by first responders whose communication systems, in many parts of the country, lag behind what mobile phone companies offer ordinary consumers.

First and foremost, he said it could provide new wireless services -- such as streaming video and broadband Internet access -- for police, fire and medical personnel who now use a patchwork of thousands of independent and typically incompatible radio systems.

The network's spare capacity -- which O'Brien said would probably be "humongous" -- would be exploited for profit by companies that might offer wireless broadband service for consumers or secure financial transactions for banks.

Under O'Brien's vision, the government would choose one company -- ideally his new venture, McLean-based Cyren Call Communications LLC -- to serve as middleman, attracting what he estimates could be as much as $20 billion to $25 billion in investment capital needed to build about 37,000 wireless towers to cover the country.

But there are hitches.

Among them, Congress has decided to auction the 30 megahertz of radio spectrum that O'Brien wants set aside, hoping to net roughly $5 billion for the government. As even O'Brien admits, getting lawmakers to give up that money is a long shot.

"It is a large task," he said as he unveiled his proposal. "I don't flinch from that harsh reality."

O'Brien's company yesterday asked the Federal Communications Commission to study his idea and to solicit comments from interested parties. He would also need approval from Congress, and he has begun consulting with people on Capitol Hill.

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