FCC Last Call Part II: Cyren Call Sings Again

They should have named the damn thing Phoenix Call, given how often this idea keeps getting resurected. OTOH, it better suits the nature of the beast to name it for creatures whose enticing song lured sailors to their deaths than for one of my favorite characters in Harry Potter.

As I wrote before on the Public Knowledge Blog, Cyren Call wants the FCC to give it 30 MHz of spectrum for free from the returned broadcast analog spectrum set aside for auction. Technically, Cyren Call wants that 30 MHz allocated to a “Public Safety Trust” that would then partner with a private sector organization, but it amounts to the same thing. In exchange, Cyren Call promises to build a nifty national broadband network that would be available to public safety entities when they need it. In order to finance the network without raising taxes or imposing costs on the public safety community, Cyren Call would operate the remaining 99.999% of capacity as a commercial venture. What a bargain! Of course, Cyren Call would kep any profit over and above actual expenses, to give it incentive to run the network “efficiently.”

I wish I did so well from doing good.

You would think that when public safety entities would get suspicious of a proposal that sounds horribly like: “DEAR PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITY. I OFFERING TO YOU MANY MEGAHURTS OF SPECTRUM. CONGRESS RECENTLY PASSED A LAW TO MAKE SPECTRUM AVAILABLE TO COMMERCIAL SECTOR, BUT I THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE IT.” But while Cyren Call has encountered the harsh response from the incumbent wireless harpies, over 1300 “HONEST TRUSTWORTHY PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITY” commentors supported the Cyren Call proposal. Unsurprisingly, most supporting comments from public safety folks emphasized that the part of the proposal they really, really liked was the part about getting even more spectrum.

But Kevin Martin, who seems to be having a “celebrate the incumbent telco harpy” meeting this month, has thrown in an interesting apple of discord. The FCC proposes to create a system similar to Cyren Call, but on the 24 MHz already assigned to public safety rather than grabbing yet more spectrum (you can read the full Order here. In other words, the FCC seems to be saying to the public safety community “O.K., so do you all think this proposal is so wonderful when it doesn’t bring you another 30 MHz of prime spectrum?” Of course, it helps that this plan parallels a plan proposed by Verizon Wireless back in September, which is remarkably simlar to the Cyren Call plan but in the spectrum already allocated to public safety and inserting the words “Verizon Wireless” in every place you had the words “Cyren Call.”

More below . . . .

You all remember the story of how poor Jack went to sell the family milk cow and on his way to market met a friendly fellow who offered a great deal. In exchange for Jack’s tired old milk cow, this friendly fellow offered Jack some magic beans that would grow into a giant beanstalk that would lead to a goose that lays golden eggs. What a deal!

Because the original is a fairy tale, the beans do grow into a magic beanstalk and, once Jack gets past the giant (a previously unmentioned detail), he brings home the goose that lays the golden eggs and lives happily ever after. In reality, however, Jack ends up with a bunch of scrawny bean plants and our friendly fellow ends up laughing all the way to town at what a gullible moron Jack is.

I run into the equivalent of this in public policy a lot. Particularly where a community that has little experience either with the regulatory world or has no good way to assess the value of its assets some freindly incumbent or innovator will show up with “just the thing” to cure all ills. Recent examples include the Smithsonian Museum signing exclusive deals with Showtime, Public Television signing exclusive deals with Comcast, and numerous civil rights organizations fighting for repeal of anti-redlining statutes that they themselves supported previously as a means of “encouraging telco video entry.”

As a “magic bean” scam, Cyren Call is particularly sleazy and therefore effective. I think it would be difficult for me to say enough bad things about Cyren Call and their truly wretched proposal. Under the guise of helping the public safety community, bringing wireless broadband to the masses, and any other damned buzzword they can toss into it, Cyren Call has proposed a multi-billion dollar spectrum swindle. For all the talk about how public safety folks will really be the licensee, it is obvious that Cyren Call hopes to rig the game and get a free, national monopoly franchise in prime spectrum for a broadband network.

What I find particularly sleazy is that Cyren Call has carefully orchestrated a public relations campaign to make this look like it’s all about public safety and that public safety entities will remain in control of everything. Please! You might as well hope to pick up $20 by picking the shel with the pea. You set up a dummy “Public Safety Trust” as the licensee stacked in a way that lets Cyren Call force through a contract that leaves the PST technically in controll while leaving Cyren Call free to do whatever it wants as the private party “administrator” of the national license technically held by the PST. The needs of any individual public saftey org will acount for only a tiny percentage of the actual capacity of such a system, and Cyren Call can also make a killing on licensing equiment and other “add on services” to public safety entities as well as commercially to the public. The shell game of having the PST as the licensee so that it’s “really” public safety spectrum will also serve to insulate Cyren Call from responsibility and accountability.

The FCC put Cyren Call’s proposal out for public comment, but then dismissed the proposal before the comment date closed on the straightforward ground that the FCC lacks the power to give Cyren Call what it wants. Nevertheless, the FCC kept the docket open. As of today, over 1,300 folks have filed comments, mostly in support of either the Cyren Call proposal or, at least, of giving another 30 MHz of spectrum to public safety (on top of the 24 MHz the DTV transition legislation already gave them).

Cyren Call replied by filing a Petition for Reconsideration asking the FCC to act on its proposal even without statutory authority, since Cyren Call is working on ramming that through Congress even as we speak. And why shouldn’t the FCC spend its time working on a proposal it has no authority to implement, when Cyren Call has assured them that they can pull the same Spectrum 419 Scam on Congress?

And here is where I give a tip of the hat to Kevin Martin, for sucking the wind out of the Cyren Call song. Rather than deal with the Recon Petition and let Cyren Call work its seductive magic on gullible fools on the Hill, Martin has proposed taking the the Cyren Call proposal and puting it on half the spectrum Congress already allocated for public safety.

Please note this still leaves a 12 MHz band of prime spectrum for local or regional or some other public safety use, and it creates a 12 MHz national band for Cyren Call (I mean, some HONEST THIRD PARTY PRIVATE SECTOR). But it no longer contains the tasty bait for public safety of yet another 30 MHz of spectrum. So the question for the public safety community is: how much do you really like this proposal and how much of the 1300 comments in support is really about getting another 30 MHz of spectrum?

As far as I am concerned, the proposal still has major problems. I don’t see why we need to give a national monopoly license for a free network for some lucky provider in exchange for what amounts to very limited public interest obligations. If we want this kind of a proposal, why not just build a federal network or have the Public Safety Trust licensee directly build, operate and resell capacity wholesale? The government has a pretty good track record with things like GPS or NOAA’s various weather and disaster monitoring systems or other high-tech networks that require reliability and long term maintenance and then leasing back benefits to the private sector and citizens as a whole. If you want “five 9s” reliability and a network that serves all citizens (not just those in the most profitable communities), then why the $#@! would you add an additional layer of complication and introduce all kinds of profit motives that are contrary to your primary goals of reliability and unviersal service by “outsourcing” everything but bare title to the license?

Oh yeah, I forgot, this is a religious argument not an economic argument. Private sector management is inherently superior, even when it’s monopoly private sector management.

The other problem with the Cyren Call proposal is that it doesn’t really address the problem. The public safety community (and the rest of the broader “first responder” community to include people like power companies that rush in to repair critical infrastructure but aren’t “public safety”) suffers from a set of issues that have very little to do with the actual availability of spectrum and much more to do with how the community was artificially fractured by legacy FCC policies, legacy equipment, budgetary constraints, internal politics, vendor manipulation, a lack of economies of scale, and a lack of vision and leadership. Unfortunately, the only thing the community as a whole can agree on is “give us more money and more spectrum, or when people die again it’ll be your fault.” And because no one wants the blame for another 9/11 communications failure, policy makers rush to at least appear as the Best Buddies of Public Safety, and no one pushes the community to actually deliver a real solution.

As so often hapens in life, a community in turmoil and with resources attracts its share of consultants, manipulators and con artists peddling their latest snake oil cure. Cyren Call has had the great attraction of promising the community what it all agrees they want: more money and more spectrum. We’ll have to see if the community remains quite so enthusaistic about a proposal that doesn’t bring in more spectrum.

And if policymakers and the public safety community are interested in some alternate visions from someone who doesn’t hope to sell the spmething or make a quick buck, I have a few suggestions. Jon Peha recently did a very good piece for New America Foundation detailing the challenges that bedevil the public safety community and how its obsession with old technologies and old ways of doing business has endlessly complicated and prolonged the interoperability problems highlighted by the tragedies of 9/11 and Katrina. That includes a good critique (certainly more charitable than my own) of the Cyren Call proposal and a competing proposal from Verizon. I’ll also reference a little piece I wrote after Katrina on open standars and open spectrum.

There’s a difference between an effective public safety policy and just giving the public safety community everything they ask for with no benchmarks and no oversight. The later encourages an endless progression of slick hustlers offering a “win win” for everyone. We must not sell our spectrum future for a handful of magic beans as urged by Cyren Call and others. We must have the courage to push the public safety community to think in new ways, and the strength to resist those who promise that throwing more money and more spectrum in the general direction of the public safety community will somehow make us more safe.

Stay tuned . . . .

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