Commercial and public-safety wireless operators will be able to use valuable 700 MHz spectrum in February 2009 after the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday narrowly approved for a budget reconciliation package that included a mandate for TV broadcasters to clear the frequencies.

With the 216-214 vote, the House approved the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline to complete the digital-television transition for a second time. After the House approved the budget-reconciliation package by a two-vote margin in the fall, the Senate passed the measure in December but changed the wording enough to force the House to vote on it again.

“This is great news,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee, upon announcing the House vote at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials winter summit.

Current plans call for public safety to receive 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum, with the rest of the band being allocated to commercial wireless operators in a 2008 auction that is projected to generate at least $10 billion in additional revenues for the government. Most of the auction proceeds would be used to reduce the national deficit and to fund a $990 million program to provide low-cost converters that will let analog TV sets receive broadcasters’ digital signals.

In addition to receiving spectrum, public safety would benefit from a $1 billion grant program to pay for interoperable communications systems, $156 million for national alert and tsunami warning systems and $43.5 million to help fund E-911 upgrades as called for in the Enhance 911 Act passed in 2004.

But the most important aspect of the legislation is the firm date for broadcasters to cease transmission of analog TV signals on the spectrum. The firm date will let public-safety entities develop plans to use the airwaves, which was not practical under current law that allows broadcasters to keep the spectrum until 85% of TV sets in a market are capable of receiving digital signals—a threshold that might not be reached for another decade, according many analysts.

Establishing a firm transition date for the 700 MHz spectrum would let public-safety entities develop plans to use the airwaves, which was not practical under current law that allows broadcasters to keep the spectrum until 85% of TV sets in a market are capable of receiving digital signals—a threshold that might not be reached for another decade, according many analysts.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said the hard date will help others in their plans, as well.

"We now have three years to prepare for the transition," Barton has previously said about the bill. "That is more than enough time for manufacturers and retailers to move low-cost digital televisions and converter-boxes into the market, for the FCC to complete the channel allocation process, for broadcasters to finalize their digital facilities, and for government and industry to prepare consumers for the transition."