By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"That was very expensive for his company, but he still saw the need to fix it," said Charles Werner, fire chief in Charlottesville, and a vice president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association. "Obviously he's very well-off, so I don't know that money is the driving factor. I think he truly believes this makes sense."
After his initial rejection of O'Brien's plan, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin proposed pairing a portion of the airwaves soon to be auctioned with half of those already set aside for public safety. The highest commercial bidder would help pay for the national emergency communications network and, in return, be allowed to use excess capacity to sell broadband services to consumers.
The winning company would have to agree to meet specific requirements, such as reaching 99 percent of the U.S. population within 10 years and building strict network security.
O'Brien supports Martin's latest proposal, even though it offers much less spectrum to first responders than he had sought.
"It's not ideal, but it's close enough to the real world we all live in," he said.
The compromise still presents a business opportunity for Cyren Call. Nine groups of police, firefighters and other first responders this month formed the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, a nonprofit organization that hopes to be awarded the national license to operate the shared network. Harlin McEwen, who heped negotiate the Nextel spectrum swap, is the group's president.
After the auction, O'Brien wants the public safety community to hire Cyren Call to negotiate the build-out agreement with the company that buys the spectrum.
That arrangement would allow O'Brien to collect sizeable fees without having to invest a corresponding amount of his money toward building the network, said Jon Peha, associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking at Carnegie Mellon University.
"There's not a huge financial risk for him in this, but it could potentially make him a lot of money," he said.
Others say that O'Brien is a shrewd businessman and lobbyist and that his new plan shows his ability to roll with the punches.
"He's got a knack for making lemonade out of lemons," said Rick Joyce, head of Venable law firm's Communications Group, who worked for O'Brien in his first law firm job. He's gone back to the drawing board and found a proposal that fits with the FCC's rules."
However, some question the feasibility of an "arranged marriage" between first responders and commercial interests. Strict requirements surrounding the spectrum will decrease the number of bidders, wireless carriers say. But public safety experts argue that a shortage of such specifications would render the network worthless.
Wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon Wireless, which both want a piece of the spectrum to roll out services on their networks, say public safety groups didn't need any more spectrum, because a portion had already been earmarked for their use.
But Reed Hundt, a former FCC chairman, thought O'Brien's plan made sense and formed his own group around the idea for a public safety network. He asked O'Brien to join.
But Hundt's vision, embodied in a well-funded firm called Frontline Wireless, would also require the shared network be open to all wireless devices and services, a concept O'Brien feared would hinder competition. O'Brien chose to stay on his own course.
"At the end of this, it could be Reed Hundt sitting across the table from Morgan O'Brien negotiating the shared agreement," said Gerard J. Waldron, Frontline's attorney.
Meanwhile, Cyren Call faces stiff competition from other systems integrators, cell tower operators and investment firms that also want to supervise the network's construction.
But if Cyren Call isn't chosen, O'Brien said, he'll go back to the drawing board.
"We're going to be part of this process in one way or another," he said. "I'm too enamored with it to walk away."