Nextel founder wants new wireless public safety network

O'Brien suggests FCC shuffle to settle spectrum mayhem

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should set aside 30 MHz of radio spectrum scheduled to be auctioned off to commercial users in 2008 for a new multibillion-dollar wireless public safety network, Nextel co-founder Morgan O’Brien said Thursday.

O'Brien's new company, Cyren Call Communications Corp., filed a proposal Thursday with the FCC calling for the agency to cordon off a 30 MHz chunk of spectrum in the 700-MHz band being vacated as U.S. broadcasters move from analog to digital broadcasts by 2009. The spectrum, which would be held in a "public safety broadband trust" at the FCC, would be used for commercial purposes after police, fire and other public safety agencies' needs are met.

This trust would negotiate terms for long-term access to this spectrum with private companies that would agree to build and maintain a nationwide, next-generation network for public safety. In exchange, the private sector entities would gain the right to share the network and sell excess capacity for commercial purposes, according to the Cyren Call proposal.

A new approach for public safety spectrum is needed, and the spectrum would provide a nationwide voice and data network for police, firefighters and other public safety workers, O'Brien said at a press conference. "There isn't the funding available [in the U.S. government] to support new public safety needs," he said. "There are too many competing needs."

The Cyren Call plan would take away spectrum slated for commercial auction in early 2008. Those auctions are expected to raise between $10 billion and $30 billion, some of which is targeted to help cut the U.S. government's budget deficit. O'Brien said he expects a great deal of debate over his plan.

"We are not proposing that the spectrum be ... lost to commercial operations," he said. "It's going to continue to have a major contribution on the commercial side."

Public safety agencies have long encountered difficulties communicating with each other because they use small chunks of spectrum scattered across the spectrum band. Agencies in adjoining cities may use radio devices that operate on different frequencies.

The U.S. Congress has looked more deeply at public safety spectrum needs after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. The 9/11 Commission investigating the attacks and their aftermath recommended additional radio spectrum for first responders after reports of police and firefighters on the scene not being able to communicate with each other or with rescue helicopters.

In February, Congress approved legislation that requires U.S. broadcasters to abandon channels in the 700-MHz range and move to digital, or DTV, broadcasts by 2009. Congress targeted 24 MHz of that spectrum to be used for public safety communications, and another 30 MHz to be auctioned in early 2008 for commercial uses. U.S. tech and wireless companies see the spectrum as optimal for long-range wireless networks.

Each tower transmitting in the upper 700MHz spectrum band being abandoned by broadcasters can cover four to five times as large a geographic area as a tower transmitting in a higher frequency band, according to the High Tech DTV Coalition.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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