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Looking back while going forward: How the early days of Nextel reflect on today

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reality Check column. We’ve gathered a group of visionaries and veterans in the mobile industry to give their insights into the marketplace.

Ever since the huge turn out last Fall in Chicago for the Wireless History Foundation gala, I’ve considered how crucial the innovators and pioneers have been to the development of wireless. I’ve known and worked with more than my fair share of this very distinguished group. In the early days of Fleet Call (for those too young to remember, the previous name of Nextel) I was lucky enough to be joined by a small group of extremely talented individuals. Two later moved on to public office and have brought their leadership and passion to critical posts in government: Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware.

But this column is about the Fleet Call co-founder who is not as much in the public eye, but whose role in the story was even more pivotal. While well documented publicly and far from “unsung,” Brian McAuley’s responsibility for the success of Nextel is less well known than it should be. At a time when the economy in general, and wireless in particular, are showing signs of sclerosis brought on by innovation deficiency, it is worth remembering the earlier days of wireless and the characteristics of some of its pioneers.

Brian McAuley and I for the first six or seven years were the public face of Fleet Call/Nextel. An accident of fate resulted in us sharing the same heritage along with confusingly similar names, an unfortunate overlap of his first name and my last name. Frankly, a lot of people got us confused all of the time. To this day, people in the industry tell me flattering stories of very clever or amusing things I said which were really Brian’s words. Brian was not only a mentor and shrewd businessman, but also became a lifelong friend.

Brian alighted into my life several months after Mark Warner and Chris Rogers (another original team member) and I had traveled the country without much success seeking to get traction for an entrepreneurial business plan that today would be called a “Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) Roll-up,” but which in those days fit no easy nomenclature. With an ability to breathe in chaotic numbers and breathe out an organized spreadsheet, Brian built a simple yet durable framework around our vision and from that day forward we were off and running.

I smile when people who don’t know me very well praise my role in the early Fleet Call acquisition phases. The facts are these: Brian, a uniquely talented and very sophisticated accountant/businessman, took me under his wing and gave me the greatest “on-the-job training” that can be imagined as we roamed the country acquiring businesses by the dozens. We had a rule: I could ask him any question, no matter how off-the-wall, and he would never laugh or demean me, but simply answer the question with as much subtlety and nuance as I could handle. This was, and to this day still is, a teacher-student relationship in the fundamentals of business. Granted, Brian dragged me from “Business 101” to post-graduate courses in “How To Recover From A Delayed IPO” and “What To Do When A Bond Covenant Is Breached” in less than five years.

We laugh sometimes about my rookie mistakes, now that the perspective of time has lessened the pain, but any person lucky enough in a lifetime to find a single excellent teacher knows what I owe Brian.

Financial acumen, mental toughness and indefatigable energy were the foundations which Brian provided to Fleet Call. The many hundreds of employees who worked with him in those early days will testify to these skills, just as SMR sellers and Wall Street financiers gave us respect because of him and his team. It did not hurt that he was, erroneously, rumored to be funded by the Bank of Ireland. His skills were vital to our success and a model of how a promising idea can morph into a real business, but they don’t capture the most important contribution Brian made.

Those of you who are in successful long term marriages probably will understand best what I am trying to describe. There developed between Brian and me a combined energy and “will to prevail” that exceeded the sum of our individual talents and efforts. This meant that for years, as one obstacle or blow to Fleet Call followed another, our bond supplied the energy to keep our employees, our shareholders, our financial supporters and each other from ever totally giving up.

Many more times than once I personally failed the test of finding adequate reserves from within. He simply willed me and the rest of the group to take the next step, even if a step backwards, rather than let our effort fail.

This is not a fairy tale. Even together we made plenty of mistakes. Nevertheless, I think it is fair and appropriate to celebrate the strange alchemy of the successful entrepreneur, even when the “entrepreneur” is actually the fused talents and energy of two unlikely Irish guys brought together by fate (and through the matchmaking skills of uber investment banker, Peter Reinheimer).

The success of Nextel from the early years and forward was the result of endless work, creativity and dedication of thousands of employees who ultimately created a successful organization. One of the most pivotal moments was when wireless pioneer Craig McCaw stepped into our early turmoil, masterminding the hiring of Dan Akerson and Tim Donahue, who then put together a dream team that led us to great success.

As a new administration readies to take the reins of wireless policy, it is worth remembering how the wireless innovators and pioneers from the past, such as Brian McAuley, shaped our present and amazing wireless achievements. There had been a time when the FCC thought a wireless duopoly was the perfect market structure; then along came Fleet Call and the PCS wannabes, willing to take on the duopolists in the marketplace. With just the right amount of regulatory encouragement, these new players transformed the landscape and accelerated the pace of technological change. As we approach the dawn of a true broadband era in wireless, I hope some space is carved out for new players like those who took a chance on Fleet Call.

This may be a time when history repeats itself. If it does, I hope the wireless leaders today take time to pass on their wisdom and knowledge to others such as those did in the past. We all need a Brian McAuley in our lives.

Brian McAuley today is chairman of Pacific Data Vision Inc.

Morgan O’Brien is chairman of Cyren Call Communications Corp., an advisor to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). Prior to Cyren Call, he co-founded Nextel Communications Inc. (originally known as Fleet Call) in 1987 and served as its chairman from 1987 to 1995 and vice-chairman until its merger with Sprint Corp. in 2005. The thoughts expressed in this column are Mr. O’Brien’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the PSST or Cyren Call.

You may contact Morgan at You may contact RCR Wireless News at


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