Both houses of Congress have agreed when television broadcasters should vacate the 700 MHz band, but there still is no law on the books to make the deal effective.

That's because terms for transitioning 700 MHz spectrum — currently used by broadcasters to transmit analog signals — is attached to budget-reconciliation legislation that unexpectedly was not passed before lawmakers recessed for the holidays. Both the House and Senate had approved budget packages that included a Feb. 17, 2009, date to transition the 700 MHz airwaves and $1.2 billion for public-safety communications, including $1 billion in interoperability grants.

Only “technical” wording separates the versions passed by the House and the Senate, but the possibility of a 2006 conference committee reconsidering the general budget legislation has some public-safety officials worried.

Some Beltway sources said the legislation could be undermined by an amendment that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska — a controversial proposal pushed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Attempts to add an ANWR provision to the defense-budget legislation were thwarted amid heated debate.

If the budget-reconciliation legislation is delayed a significant length of time, Yucel Ors, legislative director for the Association of Public-Safety Officials, said he believes public safety would ask lawmakers to consider the 700 MHz provisions emerging from a conference committee as separate legislation.

The conference committee report (see table) represented a significant victory for public safety on a couple of key items. Establishing a firm transition date for the 700 MHz spectrum would let public-safety entities develop plans to use the airwaves, which was not practical under current law that allows broadcasters to keep the spectrum until 85% of TV sets in a market are capable of receiving digital signals — a threshold that might not be reached for another decade, according to many analysts.

In addition, the $1 billion earmarked for interoperability matched the largest figure discussed by Congress during the last few months.

Under the proposed legislation, public-safety entities would use 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band, while the rest would be auctioned to commercial operators in a bidding process that is expected to generate an additional $10 billion of revenue for the U.S. Treasury.

Most of these funds would be earmarked to reduce the federal deficit and pay for a program to provide low-cost digital-to-analog converters, but the legislation includes the aforementioned $1 billion for interoperability, $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 last year.

The FCC also issued a report noting that it is considering the notion of adding to the 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum for public safety. And provisions of the defense-budget package approved by Congress in late December included another $1 billion for interoperability, as well as $1 billion for emergency-preparedness grants. However, those monies only would be available should the 700 MHz auction generate more money than the expected $10 billion.

Building blocks for a 700 MHz compromise

House version Senate version Conference version
Transition date Dec. 31, 2008 April 7, 2009 Feb. 17, 2009
Interoperability funds $500 million $1 billion $1 billion
E911 funding None $250 million $43.5 million
Alert-system funding None $250 million $156 million
Converter funding $990 million $3 billion $1.5 billion