Previous editions of this article on the Web and in print misstated the relationship between Harlin McEwen, president of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, and Morgan O'Brien, founder of Nextel Communications and Cyren Call. McEwen helped negotiate the Nextel spectrum swap with the Federal Communications Commission on Public Safety's behalf. He was not a paid consultant of Nextel. This version has been corrected.
Wireless Spectrum for Safety Hits Roadblocks
Monday, July 23, 2007
Morgan O'Brien has made his career out of slicing up chunks of airwaves and stitching them back together.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the District lawyer wove a national wireless network called Nextel by combining radio frequencies reserved for truckers and taxi drivers. He then swapped those airwaves for more desirable ones before selling the company to Sprint for $35 billion in 2005.
His latest endeavor as an airwaves broker, however, has run into daunting obstacles from Congress, federal regulators and deep-pocketed competitors.
O'Brien, who walked away from Nextel shortly before the merger with Sprint was completed, formed a small firm in McLean, Cyren Call, around his vision for a new communications network for police and firefighters.
His plan hinged on setting aside a huge heap of airwaves for public safety. Cyren Call would make money by helping to oversee construction of the network. Those same airwaves -- also coveted by the nation's wireless carriers -- will be auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission in January.
This year, O'Brien asked Congress to set aside those airwaves, which are about to be vacated by television broadcasters, but was shot down. The FCC, not wanting to delay the auction, which is expected to raise $15 billion, also dismissed his proposal.
"I knew it wouldn't be a popular idea," he said. "Any steam we had built for a change before Congress went right out the window."
Those early defeats put O'Brien on the fringe of the debate swirling around the fate of the spectrum, but they have not stopped him from intensely lobbying FCC officials and public safety leaders. The silver-haired, self-made millionaire known for shaking up the wireless industry has become a somewhat controversial character in the auction.
From a small McLean office, he leads 20 people, including his three co-founders: Tom Sidman, former Nextel general counsel; Keith Kaczmarek, a wireless entrepreneur; and John Melcher, a public safety consultant. Cyren Call received $6 million in funding from several venture capital firms, including New Enterprise Associates in Baltimore and Columbia Capital in Alexandria.
O'Brien became sympathetic to the plight of police chiefs and firefighters in 2003, when Nextel's signals began to interfere with their radios and walkie-talkies. He visited officials across the country and eventually moved his company's network to other airwaves. In the process, he noticed that first responders relied on a patchwork of outdated networks that don't overlap or communicate with one another.
"You literally have people standing next to each other in a burning building who can't talk to each other because their devices aren't compatible," he said. "An average teenager has access to a wireless device that has far more capacity than any public safety responder in this country. That's absurd."
The alliances he formed at Nextel have served him well. Many public safety officials credit O'Brien for calling attention to the need for an interoperable network, although a few observers have questioned his profit motive.