President George W. Bush in February signed budget-reconciliation legislation that includes a firm date for TV broadcasters to clear 700 MHz spectrum and $1.2 billion in funding earmarked for public-safety communications.

Under the new law, which the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved by a 216-214 margin, television broadcasters must clear the 700 MHz airwaves, currently used to transmit analog signals, on Feb. 17, 2009. Public-safety entities will get to use 24 MHz of the spectrum, while the rest of the band will be auctioned to commercial operators in a bidding process expected to generate $10 billion in additional revenue for the government.

Some public-safety officials previously had expressed hope that first responders might receive more than the 24 MHz of airwave earmarked, but enacting the budget measure effectively ends such discussion, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee.

“All the spectrum that is not going to public safety is ready to be auctioned, so it is highly unlikely [that more frequencies would be dedicated to public safety],” McEwen said.

In addition to receiving spectrum, public safety will benefit from other aspects of the law. Included in the measure is a $1 billion grant program to pay for public-safety interoperable communications systems, $156 million for national alert and tsunami warning systems and $43.5 million to help fund E911 upgrades as called for in the Enhance 911 Act passed in 2004.

Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, said details of the interoperability grant program — to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) instead of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — remain “very much up in the air.”

DHS utilizes SAFECOM guidelines in its interoperability grant programs. Public safety has urged NTIA to do the same, but the agency has not announced its decision on the matter.

Regardless of how the interoperability grant program is administered, public safety will not have to wait until the 700 MHz auction is completed to apply for the funds. The $1 billion earmarked for interoperability is expected to be made available before the 2008 auction, according to several Beltway sources.

Most of the $10 billion in expected auction proceeds will be used to reduce budget deficits and to fund a program designed to provide people who have analog TV sets with low-cost converters that will let them receive digital broadcasts.

Previous law called for broadcasters to clear the 700 MHz band by the end of this year, but they were not required to do so until 85% of all U.S. television sets could receive digital signals — a threshold that could have taken decades to reach, according to many analysts.