During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month, committee co-chair Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) conducted an impassioned inquisition of Frontline Wireless partner James Barksdale that reached a climactic point with the leading question: "And you just want us to give you the spectrum?"

Of course, Frontline Wireless has never asked for a spectrum grant. In fact, the fundamental tenet of the Frontline public-private proposal is that it would not interfere with mandated plans to auction the 700 MHz frequencies, so the plan could be adopted without an act of Congress -- the issue that derailed the proposal made by Cyren Call Communications last year.

Everyone in the industry that I've spoken with who witnessed the exchange in person or via webcast were aghast, even several who oppose the Frontline proposal. How could the co-chair of a committee not understand such a key aspect of the central subject of a hearing?

Most said whoever was charged with briefing Stevens on the matter should be fired. Others argued that someone may have informed Stevens, but he may not have paid attention because he was certain that he would oppose the Frontline plan for political reasons. One person said it may be a sign of age catching up to the elderly senator.

There may be some truth in one or more of these explanations; there may be none. However, the episode should serve as a note of caution to decision makers about 700 MHz auction rules. This is an extremely complicated issue that is being considered at breakneck speed so that bidding on the spectrum can begin in six months, and the potential for misunderstandings appear significant.

After all, if a politically savvy senator with a staff of people who are paid to make sure he is informed on such matters can fall behind the curve, what chance does a county communication official have of keeping abreast of the matter?

And things are only getting tougher. A week ago, public-safety representatives clarified their position, followed by Frontline this week tweaking its proposal by stating that rules accompanying the auction should apply only to the spectrum being auction, not retroactively affect the existing spectrum holdings of incumbent wireless carriers.

But the biggest development came out of the FCC. Multiple media outlets have reported that Chairman Kevin Martin has circulated a draft of 700 MHz rules that would enable a public-private partnership between a commercial "E Block" licensee and a national public-safety licensee on 20 MHz of spectrum in the band. I haven't seen the draft, but sources indicate that the media reports are largely accurate.

However, this public-safety obligation would be the only encumbrance on the E Block. The open-access provisions that Frontline wanted in the E Block would instead be imposed on 22 MHz of spectrum.

Assuming these reports are accurate, the draft represents an encouraging sign for public safety. Everyone wanting to partner with public safety on a nationwide broadband network would be able to bid for the right, something that practically may not have happened if open-access provisions also were included in the E Block rules.

Meanwhile, open-access advocates would have the opportunity to make their business case on another large swath of spectrum -- a wise decision. As we have stated before in the space, both the public-private concept and the open-access notion are worthy policy goals, but combining them in the manner proposed by Frontline might only increase the difficulty of either objective being realized effectively.

Of course, such encouraging signs must be taken with a grain of salt at this time. There is still a great deal unknown about the draft, the most significant being whether there are three votes on the FCC to pass such a measure and what changes will need to be made to garner such support.

Regardless what the FCC ultimately decides, hopefully there will be clear requirements for the public-safety network buildout and maintenance. Just as importantly, there needs to be a massive education campaign on the part of all parties -- the government, public safety, and commercial sectors -- to explain the implications of the rules as quickly as possible.

Without this education, we run the risk of more misunderstandings like the one Sen. Stevens had during the hearing -- but this time, the cost could be billions of dollars to a corporation or the lives of public safety. Too much is at stake to let that happen.

E-mail me at donald.jackson@penton.com.