DENVER-Public safety's hopes to utilize 700 MHz spectrum this decade may well be determined this month, when Congress is expected to address the complex issue of completing the digital-television transition to clear broadcasters from the valuable airwaves.

With this in mind, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) issued a “call to action” on the item, urging its members to let their elected officials on Capitol Hill understand the importance of the spectrum to public safety.

Specifically, APCO wants Congress to pass legislation establishing a firm date for UHF broadcasters to cease transmitting analog signals in the 700 MHz band, which includes 24 MHz earmarked for public safety. In 1997, Congress passed a law requiring broadcasters to clear the spectrum and transmit only digital signals by Dec. 31, 2006, but only if 85% of all U.S. households can receive digital television signals.

Many industry observers predict it could take many more years before consumers buy enough digital television sets to reach the 85% threshold. In a pre-recorded video message to Congress played at APCO's annual conference, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt asked lawmakers to remove the 85% clause and establish a firm date for the transition.

“Please eliminate this loophole. … This is literally a life-or-death issue,” Hurtt said.

Receiving 700 MHz spectrum by the original 2006 date is almost out of the question, and there is a growing consensus on Capitol Hill that the transition should occur on Dec. 31, 2008. This date is acceptable to public safety because the realities of development and manufacturing cycles dictate that public safety likely would not be able to use the spectrum much earlier, said Al Ittner, Motorola's senior manager of spectrum and regulatory strategy.

“The issue is one of certainty — that allows for planning and budgeting,” Ittner said. Yucel Ors, APCO's director of legislative affairs, said APCO members should contact their elected representatives and their staff members in person or via phone, fax or e-mail.

“We hear repeatedly from these [congressional] offices, ‘Nobody's calling us on these issues,’” Ors said, urging public-safety officials to change this trend.

Public safety wants the 700 MHz airwaves to bolster its spectrum portfolio for voice and to enable advanced services — particularly video surveillance — that are expected to be valuable in the homeland-security effort. There is a coalition that hopes to convince lawmakers to grant public safety additional 700 MHz for data-centric applications, but Ittner said ensuring that broadcasters clear the initial 24 MHz is the immediate priority.

Indeed, it may be difficult to convince lawmakers to give more 700 MHz spectrum to public safety, because Congress hopes that auctioning the airwaves to commercial operators will generate at least $10 billion to address budget shortfalls.

Lawmakers also are concerned that effectively making analog TVs useless in an over-the-air broadcast environment would create voter backlash that could jeopardize their political futures. A program to provide digital-to-analog converter boxes for these sets has been discussed, but there is little agreement about its administration or expense. In addition, the powerful broadcasting lobby repeatedly has asked Congress to include other issues like multicasting in any date-certain legislation.

Given the complex political environment surrounding the issue, Ors said it is important for APCO members to remind lawmakers how important the issue is to public safety. And Ittner communicated a sense of urgency on the matter, noting that the expected consideration from Congress in September likely will be public safety's best opportunity to secure the 700 MHz band this decade.

“If it doesn't happen this year, this Congress probably isn't going to address it,” Ittner said. “If it gets killed this year, the same Congress probably won't consider it next year.”