Public-safety entities will be encouraged to invest in interoperability solutions in the near future after Congress passed a measure requiring that $1 billion be allocated to public safety for such purposes during the next nine months.

Introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) as an amendment to the Call Home Act passed hours before Congress adjourned for the year, the measure calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to distribute the $1 billion by Sept. 30. Congress earmarked the interoperability funding in digital-television legislation enacted early in 2006, but some believe the money would not be disbursed until after the government received 700 MHz auction proceeds in early 2008.

Under the new law, the U.S. Treasury will borrow the $1 billion so that the funds can be made available for public-safety projects in the near term. Proceeds from the 700 MHz auction will be used to repay the loan.

In the wake of communications problems after terrorist attacks on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other major incidents, many federal government officials have made public-safety interoperability a priority. With this in mind, Congress passing the measure was akin to an early Christmas present for first responders, said Wanda McCarley, president of APCO.

“It's a huge plus for public safety,” she said. “It comes at a good time.”

While the legislation will make the interoperability funding available sooner than many anticipated, it's still unclear how and when public-safety organizations can apply for the grants,

“Do [NTIA officials] give it to the counties and let the counties dole it out? Do they let the states dole it out?” McCarley asked. “Those bridges just haven't been crossed yet.”

Public-safety officials have suggested that the interoperability funds be allocated using existing Department of Homeland Security criteria and procedures — a process familiar to public-safety entities — but no decisions have been made on the matter, said Yucel Ors, APCO's legislative director.

“It has to be allocated, but who they allocate it to — and how it gets allocated — is still to be determined,” he said.

One stipulation attached to the funding measure is that the money be used to deploy systems that interoperate with the 700 MHz band that will be available nationwide after TV broadcasters vacate the airwaves in February 2009, Ors said.

“It can be patched in, but it has to be interoperable with a 700 MHz system,” Ors said.

While the Call Home Act — legislation designed primarily to ensure that U.S. troops deployed overseas can call home at reduced phone rates — was passed before Congress adjourned, many other legislative efforts pursued during the last year were not, including comprehensive telecom-reform legislation and measures to limit liability on 911 calls delivered via voice over IP. A new Congress featuring a Democratic majority will convene in January.

The road to riches

Sept. 11, 2001:

Interoperability problems cited in the deaths of hundreds of firefighters inside the World Trade Center during its collapse.

Aug. 29, 2005:

Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast. In the wake of communications problems related to the recovery, Capitol Hill renews its focus on interoperability.

Feb. 8, 2006:

President Bush signs law allocating $1 billion in proceeds from the 700 MHz auction to public-safety interoperability.

Nov. 25, 2002:

President George W. Bush signs law creating the Department of Homeland Security, which includes an interoperability communications program known as SAFECOM.

Dec. 8, 2006:

Congress passes the Call Home Act, which includes an amendment that requires the government to allocate $1 billion in interoperability funds by Sept. 30.