DENVER--Members of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) need to tell their federal lawmakers that legislation establishing a firm date for television broadcasters to clear spectrum at 700 MHz is critical to public safety, speakers said yesterday in a “call to action” session.

Although 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band was earmarked for public safety in 1997, the airwaves generally are not available in the nation’s larger markets, where the need for additional airwaves is greatest, said Al Ittner, Motorola’s senior manager of spectrum and regulatory strategy. The law does not require broadcasters to vacate the spectrum used to transmit analog signals until 85% of all U.S. households can receive digital television signals, which some analysts predict could take many more years.

In passing intelligence reform legislation last year, a “sense of Congress” clause called for lawmakers to address the issue this year. There is a general consensus that the transition should occur on Dec. 31, 2008, but no bill has even been introduced in the House to date.

Ittner communicated a sense of urgency on the issue, noting that Congress is expected to consider the issue in September in what 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.”

Public safety wants the spectrum to enable advanced services—particularly video surveillance—that is expected to be valuable in the homeland-security effort. In addition, Congress wants to clear the 700 MHz band so the FCC can auction the airwaves, which is expected to generate more than $10 billion that is needed to offset budget shortfalls.

However, lawmakers 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. In such a complex political environment, it’s important that first responders clarify the public-safety implications, Yucel Ors, APCO’s director of legislative affairs. “We hear repeatedly from these [congressional] offices, ‘Nobody’s calling us on these issue,’” Ors said, urging public-safety officials to call their representatives.

Ors also urged APCO members to tell lawmakers that voice-over-IP providers must be required to provide enhanced 911 services, as the FCC recently ruled. Some ambiguous language in legislative proposals threatens to jeopardize the impact of the FCC’s order.