As expected, the FCC yesterday approved rules for 700 MHz spectrum that includes provisions for a public-private partnership to build a nationwide wireless broadband network and reserves a portion of the available spectrum for commercial operators willing to adhere to open-access principles.

Under the order, the winner of the 10 MHz “D block” of spectrum adjacent to the 10 MHz earmarked for public safety would negotiate an agreement with a national public-safety licensee to build a nationwide network using the combined spectrum. While commercial services can be offered over the network, public-safety users would have priority access.

Chairman Kevin Martin said establishing a method for budget-challenged public-safety agencies to have access to a broadband network that would enable interoperable communications was a priority for the commission.

“While I also would have supported a network exclusively for the use of public safety, the simple reality is that there currently is no way to fund such an enterprise,” Martin said. “Many national and local public-safety organizations have expressed support for a public-private partnership approach as their last, best chance to make this network a reality. We cannot afford to let the opportunity that the 700 MHz band offers for public safety pass us by.”

Commissioner Michael Copps echoed this sentiment and emphasized the need for the commission to play an active role to ensure that the public-private partnership serves the needs of public safety.

“There are no guaranteed outcomes here, but we have to find a way—finally—to get this done,” Copps said. “If it works—and it’s a big ‘if’—the American people will be appreciably safer.”

Copps also noted that potential bidders should be aware that building a network that meets public-safety requirements in such an expansive coverage area—99.3% of the U.S. population must be served within 10 years—will be a difficult and expensive task. If an agreement does not satisfy public safety, Copps said he is “perfectly willing to go back to the drawing board” and select another commercial partner or proposal.

“I won’t be happy if this happens, but I’m not about to cut corners if it means compromising public safety,” Copps said. “Far better that public safety remains in control of its spectrum—and free to find another model for funding it—than for this commission to bless a sharing agreement that does not fully protect the nation’s citizens and its first responders.”

These statements were welcomed by Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP’s) communications and technology committee.

“To me, he made the points that you need to make—that is, at the end of the day, we [public safety] have to be protected, and it has to meet our needs,” McEwen said. “If we’re not convinced it’s going to do what we need, then they’ve got to be prepared to start over. I thought that was a pretty telling remark.”

While McEwen was encouraged by the statements and expressed visions, he said the precise wording of the order—not yet available for review—could make a significant impact on the value to public safety.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “I want to see the order.”

In addition to the public-private partnership for public safety, the FCC established rules for the rest of the 60 MHz of commercial spectrum that must be auctioned by Jan. 28, 2008. A 22 MHz “C block” will require the winning bidder to let users connect any device to the network, if it doesn’t harm the network—a wireless application of the famous “Carterphone” rules adopted for wired networks.

Other notable rules approved by the FCC would require anonymous bidding in the 700 MHz auction and require that winning commercial bidders meet stringent buildout thresholds—35% of the license’s geographic area in four years and 70% coverage in 10 year—or the FCC will reclaim the license for the unserved areas.