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Emergency wireless network urged

More airwaves should be reserved to guarantee public safety officials can communicate with each other in disasters, wireless industry executives said Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

More airwaves should be reserved for public safety and emergency workers in the United States to guarantee they can communicate with each other in disasters, wireless industry executives said Thursday.

One of the major issues that arose out of the rubble left behind by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina was the difficulty emergency workers had talking via two-way radios.

As the Federal Communications Commission readies an auction of airwaves being given up by television broadcasters, Morgan O'Brien, who co-founded Nextel Communications, urged the government to withhold 30 Megahertz (Mhz) from the sale for building a wireless network for public safety officials.

The 30 megahertz represents about half of the airwaves to be sold in the auction, which must begin by early 2008. Congress ordered the sale and wants the proceeds, likely to be billions of dollars, to help trim the U.S. budget deficit.

O'Brien, through a new venture he formed with other former Nextel executives named Cyren Call Communications Corp., is calling for the airwaves to be put into a trust that would lease them to commercial providers to build a network for both public safety officials and companies to use.

It would likely require some 37,000 wireless towers to cover most of the U.S. population, O'Brien said.

"We have begun to talk to folks on the Hill about this and ask for an opportunity to have debate before it's too late," O'Brien told reporters at a briefing. "While we may not have much time, we have some time for the debate to go on."

He acknowledged the plan faces significant hurdles to winning the necessary congressional approval.

O'Brien's proposal would be on top of another 24 Mhz of airwaves that Congress has already set aside for public safety communications. The spectrum is being given up by television broadcasters that are moving to digital.

The airwaves to be auctioned, in the 700 Mhz band, are considered valuable because they can travel long distances and penetrate walls. Wireless carriers are eager to use them as they deploy new video and high-speed Internet services.

O'Brien's group filed its proposal with the FCC, asking the agency to open a discussion about the plan.

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the Cyren Call request.

CTIA, the association that represents major U.S. wireless carriers like Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless, said it opposed the proposal.

"CTIA believes this new proposal will have the unintended consequences of halting deployment of this much needed communications system," CTIA President Steve Largent. He also said it would reduce auction proceeds.