Cyren Call: Too Little, Too Late

BOULDER, Colo. — There’s no doubt Morgan O’Brien’s heart is in the right place when he talks about the need to build a next-generation communications network for emergency first responders.

But after hearing more details of his Cyren Call plan, you can’t help but wish he had cooked up something truly innovative, entrepreneurial and disruptive, instead of an old-school telecom biz plan bundled in a shiny public-trust wrapper.

Launched in the spring of 2006, Cyren Call is the new pet project for Nextel founder O’Brien, who spoke Monday here at the Silicon Flatirons telecom policy conference.

Several controversial facets of Cyren’s proposal — including a grant of 30 MHz of super-valuable 700 MHz spectrum, as well as its plan to bundle for-profit plans alongside the public-safety component of its network — have been more than enough to draw stinging reviews from many parts of the telecom world, including a rejection from the FCC and a thorough drubbing at a Senate hearing last week.

While O’Brien says he’s ready to take the heat from Washington and big telco opponents, he was disarmingly short on details Monday, not the way to win hearts and minds. He also didn’t mention anything about including ham radio, Wi-Fi mesh networks, Voice over IP technology or volunteer geeks, all components of the rapid response that helped communications resume after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and Mississippi.

Instead, O’Brien’s Cyren plan seems to be more of the same — a big, closed network run by a single operator, with expensive, proprietary handsets. Sure they might do lots of cool things, and yes there is that politically correct component of a “Public Safety Broadband Trust,” a new government entity that would “own” the actual spectrum, while Cyren would merely “operate” the network, “placing the needs of public safety first and commercial usage second,” to quote Cyren’s web site.

But when asked after his speech if there were any available models of such a successful public-private partnership, O’Brien admitted there weren’t. And during his talk he made the point several times that Cyren hadn’t yet worked out all the details of its plan, claiming it was better to take action and figure things out on the fly. Sure. Given the telecom industry’s recent history, there’s nobody else we’d rather trust with millions in capital and free spectrum than another big startup telecom player whose business plan is “let’s wing it.”

If nothing else, O’Brien deserves some credit for lighting a fire under an issue that the current administration and its Homeland Security office seem too eager to ignore. Perhaps the threat of Cyren Call — which did earn some small praise from Sen. John McCain recently — has helped get first-responder plans off the back burner, no small victory there. But even O’Brien admits that with the DTV transition deadlines set in law, the odds are stacked against Cyren Call succeeding. If so, then maybe those capital-market investors O’Brien is courting can seek out better, more innovative and perhaps even cheaper and simpler plans in which to invest.

Photo by Paul Kapustka.