In response to the latest FCC Proposed Rulemaking on Public Safety Spectrum, I'd like to warn members of the public about a new spectrum “419” scam, also known as the “Cyren Call” scam. There is also a related version called the “Verizon Wireless” or “CTIA” scam. It is a version of the “public interest scam” that dates back to 1927, when commercial radio broadcasters convinced Congress to give them exclusive, free radio licenses in exchange for undefined “public interest obligations” to serve the public.
The email solicitation for the Cyren Call scam looks like this:
DEAR BRAVE PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITY OR CONCERND CITIZEN:
MY NAME IS MORGN OBRYN AND I WANT TO GIVE MANY MEGAHURTS NEW SPECTRUM TO PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITYS. MY COUNTRYS CONGRESS RECENTLY PASSED A LAW GIVING BRAVE PUBLIC SAFETY COMMUNITY 24 MEGAHURTS NEW SPECTRUM AND 36 MEGAHURTS TO AUCTION TO PRIVATE SECTOR FOR COMMERCIAL USE. I DO NOT THINK 24 MEGAHURTS ENOUGH FOR BRAVE PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITIES.
WITH YOUR HELP, I CAN GET 30 MORE MEGAHURTS OUT OF PRIVATE SECTOR. I AM LOOKING FOR TRUSTWORTHY PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITYS AND CONCERNED CITIZENS LIKE YOURSELF TO SET UP “PUBLIC SAFETY TRUST” TO HOLD THE 30 MORE MEGAHURTS. YOU WILL GET GREAT NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK FOR PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITYS THAT CAN SEND IMPORTANT VIDEO INFORMATION OR OTHER INFORMATION IN TIMES OF TERRORIST ATTACK OR HURRICANE. MANY BRAVE FIREPEOPLE DIE ON 9/11 BECAUSE THEIR RADIOS NOT “INTEROPERABLE.” OUR “PUBLIC SAFETY TRUST” NETWORK WILL SOLVE ALL “INTEROPERABLE” PROBLEMS AND WOULD HAVE SAVED MANY LIFES IN 9/11 AND IN THE GULF COAST DURING KATRINA AND REETA. AND BEST PART IS, WE BUILD IT FREE! NO NEW TAXES OR NOTHING!
TO PAY FOR GREAT NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK, THAT YOU GETTING FREE WITH NO NEW TAXES OR NOTHING, I NEED ALL BRAVE PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITYS AND CONCERNED CITIZENS TO WRITE FEDERAL COMMUNICATION COMMISSION AND CONGRESS TO GIVE OUR “PUBLIC SAFETY TRUST” EXCLUSIVE NATIONAL LICENSE FOR FREE. WHEN CONGRESS AND FCC DO THAT, I WILL BUILD YOU GREAT NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK YOU GET FREE WITH NO TAXES OR NOTHING! I PROMISE I BUILD IT FOR EVERYONE, NO MATTER HOW EXPENSIVE, WITH MY OWN MONEY, BECAUSE I AM CONCERNED PERSON LIKE YOURSELF WHO CARE DEEPLY ABOUT 9/11 FIREMEN AND NEW ORLEANS PEOPLE.
IN EXCHANGE, ALL I ASK IS THAT YOU LET ME USE SPECTRUM WHEN BRAVE PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITYS NOT USING IT. THAT WILL HELP ME PAY FOR GREAT NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK YOU GET FOR FREE WITH NO TAXES OR NOTHING! I PROMISE I WILL NEVER OVER CHARGE ANYBODY OR TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FACT THAT I GET MANY BILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF BEST SPECTRUM FOR FREE. I ALOS PROMISE I WILL NEVER STOP BUILDING NETWORK AFTER I BUILD IT IN PLACES THAT MAKE ME LOTS OF MONEY. YOU CAN PUT THAT PROMISE IN LICENSE TO GET FREE SPECTRUM, SO FCC CAN ENFORCE AGAINST ME.
THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS WONDERFUL, BRAVE PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITYS AND CONCERNED CITIZENS LIKE YOURSELF.
FCC DOCKET NO. RM-11348 AND PS DOCKET NO. 06-229. PLEASE USE THESE REFERENCE NUMBERS IN ALL LETTERS TO FCC AND CONGRESS.
The “Verizon scam” has the same email, but it tells the recipient to fight the Cyren Call proposal in RM-11348 but support the Verizon proposal in PS Docket No. 06-229.
The Cyren Call scam and the Verizon scam both play on a real problem and appeal to the needs of public safety entities and the public generally. Every individual public safety service – fire, police, EMS – all have their own set of equipment and their own frequency bands. While this made sense in the early days of radio to keep emergency services from accidently interfering with each other (other in the usual radio frequency sense or in the sense of firemen responding to an APB sent out on a police communication system), the FCC split up the bands into distinct designations by service and provided enough spectrum to do two-way walkie-talkie type voice (which was what the technology was up to then).
Unfortunately, policy has not kept up with the times. We now have a wide range of technologies that would let public safety entities have cheap, reliable equipment that can talk to all services (“interoperate”) with each other when needed while still preventing firemen from accidentally getting transmissions intended only for police. Professor Jon Peha has written a good summary of issues and possible directions for the New America Foundation. Using open standards and open spectrum to foster interoperability and reduce cost, especially for the bulk of traffic that does not involve life or death issues where one must be exceedingly careful about radio interference concerns, provides another possible solution for the public safety community.
The Cyren Call and Verizon Spectrum 419 schemes offer what look like free short cuts for an overburdened community with a critical need. They promise to build an expensive broadband network at no cost to the community or the tax payer. They do not even ask to hold the license for spectrum. Instead, they promise to create a special “public safety trust” that will represent the entire diverse public safety community. They even offer to put their commitments in a license the appropriate federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission, can enforce against them. All Cyren Call asks is the chance to use the excess spectrum capacity to make money to build and run the new network.
It sounds too good to be true; but it's hard for those not familiar with communications policy to see the trick. The scam part comes in two ways. First, the scammer is offering something that, if the government really wanted to build it, the government could do so cheaper and more reliably. The federal government routinely builds and operates complicated telecommunications networks for life and death situations, and has experience sharing these systems with civilians (The GPS system of satellites built by the U.S. DoD and provided for free for civilian purposes, for example.) So why give some lucky licensee a free national license to do what the U.S. government could do cheaper and more reliably? Or, if it must be a “public-private partnership,” why not require competitive bidding for a huge swath of choice spectrum?
The second aspect of the scam depends on knowing how the FCC works. Once the FCC gives a license, it just about never takes the license away. So no matter what conditions go into the license, they aren't really enforceable because the FCC won't really hold them accountable. Instead, the license simply becomes the basis for constant renegotiation with the FCC on what the licensee will really end up doing – unless the licensee ignores the license requirements again.
This scam traces its history back to 1927. Commercial broadcasters convinced Congress to give them free, exclusive licenses to provide AM radio service to the public “for free,” supported by advertising revenue. In exchange, the radio broadcasters promised to serve “the public interest.” But over time, broadcasters lobbied Congress and the FCC to keep reducing their “public interest” responsibilities and repeating over and over again that they “own” the government licenses they got for free. Today, even in markets where broadcasters provide just about no local news, no one expects a broadcaster to lose a license.
So when Cyren Call or Verizon Wireless promises to build out everywhere in the country, including areas where it will cost more deploy than they can hope to make in profit, everyone who knows how spectrum policy works at the FCC knows it's a scam. Once Cyren Call starts building its network in the profitable markets, the FCC will never shut it off even if they never end up getting around to the less profitable areas of the country. Sure, the FCC could require Cyren Call to build in the least profitable markets first, but Cyren Call would say that they can't afford the investment if they build out where it's least profitable.
The promise to make the “Public Safety Trust” the real licensee and Cyren Call “only” a contractor is supposed to address this objection by leaving the “public safety community” the ones “in control.” But again, anyone with experience in telecom knows how that game works. Cyren Call, as the party most intimately involved with the proposal, will have huge influence over how the Public Safety Trust gets structured and who gets appointed to it first. Then it will get a bunch of favorable contracts signed that lock in Cyren Call as the company that actually runs things. The Public Safety Trust will have as much authority over Cyren Call as Queen Elizabeth II has over “her” Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Members of the public and the public safety community genuinely concerned with the problem of creating a modern, interoperable communications system for public safety need to stop encouraging these Spectrum 419 scams. Not only can Spectrum 419s cost the country billions of dollars while providing little or no value, they distract the public safety community from the real work of building viable, modern interoperable systems. The next time you get an appeal from “Cyren Call” or one of the other Spectrum 419 scammers, tell the FCC and your member of Congress that you want to see real solutions (preferably with more open spectrum and open standards), not the spectrum equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes.