Just hours before adjourning for the year, Congress approved a measure that calls for $1 billion in interoperability funds to be made available to public-safety agencies in 2007—probably a year earlier than the money would have been disbursed otherwise.

Introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) as an amendment to the Call Home Act passed Friday night, the measure means public-safety entities can apply for the $1 billion in interoperability funds soon instead of waiting until after the 700 MHz auction—the funding source—is completed. Currently, that auction is scheduled is scheduled to begin by January 2008, according to digital-television transition legislation passed early this year.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will continue to oversee allocation of these funds, but many questions remain, said Yucel Ors, legislative director for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

“From the way I read the bill, they have to parcel it out by Sept. 30 [of 2007],” he said. “It has to be allocated, but who they allocate it to—and how it gets allocated—is still to be determined.”

Indeed, public-safety officials have suggested that the interoperability funds be allocated using existing Department of Homeland Security criteria and procedures. One condition 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 has to be interoperable with 700 MHz,” Ors said. “It can be patched in, but it has to be interoperable with a 700 MHz system.”

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. A new Congress featuring a Democratic majority will convene in January.