Barring the kind of Christmas/New Year’s miracle that typically is found only in heartwarming movies, 2011 will go down as yet another year in which Congress failed to enact legislation that would provide public safety with the spectrum and funding needed to make the vision of a nationwide network for first responders a reality.

Given the significant lobbying efforts of public-safety representatives throughout the year to secure 700 MHz D Block reallocation for first responders and billions of dollars in funding for LTE deployments, many in the sector are understandably disappointed that Congress did not vote to approve these critical elements for public safety’s communications future.

So, were the efforts of 2011 wasted? Nothing could be further from truth.

True, Congress did not pass a bill by the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks or before it recessed for the holidays. However, there is little doubt that the notion of a nationwide LTE network for public safety gathered significant momentum this year.

Until this summer, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill verbally expressed support for D Block reallocation and LTE funding and several bills had been introduced, but there had been no tangible progress on the matter, because none of the measures were voted upon.

That changed when the Senate Commerce Committee voted overwhelmingly for S.911, which called for D Block reallocation, $12 billion in funding and a governance model featuring a non-profit entity driven by public safety at the helm.

Perhaps more important, D Block reallocation and LTE funding of $5 billion to $6.5 billion — less than the amount called for in S.911 but certainly nothing to sneeze at — were included in a spectrum bill that passed the key subcommittee in the House, which long has been viewed as the key political hurdle. The legislation also is supported by the Republican chair of the House Commerce Committee.

Admittedly, the House legislation includes elements that are distasteful for the first-responder community, most notably stipulations that call for the eventual return of 700 MHz narrowband spectrum and a governance model that calls for each state to develop its own LTE deployment plan under an administrator model similar to the one used for 800 MHz rebanding.

With this in mind, there clearly is still work that has to be done to close the deal. Lawmakers need to be educated about the perils associated with the premature return of narrowband spectrum, the potential benefits of first responders having significant spectral resources in the 700/800 MHz range, and the concerns about the House governance model — before a vote is taken.

But the bottom line is that both the House and the Senate have bought into the notion of D Block reallocation and funding for LTE deployment—and these are positions reflected in actual votes, not just political lip service. This is remarkable, given that D.C. power brokers showed absolutely zero interest in providing additional broadband spectrum and funding to a fragmented public-safety sector as recently as January 2010.

Less than two years later, the question on Capitol Hill is not “if” D Block reallocation and funding will happen, but “when” and “how.” It may not be the perfect present for public safety this Christmas, but no one should compare it to a lump of coal.

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