An amendment to the U.S. Senate’s pending 9/11 Commission legislation calls for broadcasters to vacate four analog TV channels worth of valuable spectrum in the 700 MHz band for public safety, which would provide clear date for public safety to access the spectrum if the item becomes law.

Approved Wednesday as part of S. 2845--the National Intelligence Reform Act--the amendment would require broadcasters to clear 24 MHz of spectrum currently used for analog TV channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 to vacate those frequencies by Jan. 1, 2008, when public-safety entities could use the airwaves. If the amendment becomes law, broadcasters would have to clear the spectrum unless no local public-safety group makes a “bonafide request” for the airwaves.

“Pretty much, it says public safety will get the spectrum in 2008,” said Yucel Ors, spokesman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officers (APCO). “It’s a victory for public safety.” Last week, legislation proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to clear broadcasters from all analog spectrum in the 700 MHz band effectively was thwarted by an amendment introduced at markup by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that would leave it unclear when any of the 700 MHz spectrum would be available.

Yesterday’s amendment was a compromise between McCain and Burns, closing the loophole of Burns’ amendment last week that would have let the FCC waive broadcasters’ need to clear public-safety spectrum if doing so was deemed to a disruption to viewers.

Perhaps even more important to public safety is that the National Association of Broadcasters--one of the most powerful lobbying forces on Capitol Hill--supported the amendment, meaning it should not be the focus of an opposition lobby during the next few years.

“We think it’s a reasonable compromise,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. “I think there’s a recognition on our part that there’s a need to accommodate public safety.”

For the amendment to become law, it also needs to be supported in the House of Representatives, where “some back and forth” negotiations continue, Wharton said.

While the amendment would provide significant 700 MHz certainty for public safety, commercial wireless providers would be left in limbo.

“Basically, they wanted to show that they were acting upon the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to make more spectrum available for public safety, which everybody wants to do” Baca said. “But it’s kind of like activity without real progress.”

In particular, Baca said the amendment calls for the government to spend $1 billion to subsidize converters that would allow an analog TV to receive an over-the-air digital signal. However, funding for the converters was supposed to come from the proceeds of an FCC auction of the 700 MHz airwaves to private wireless operators--an auction that is unlikely to be conducted until wireless providers are given a clear date when the spectrum could be used.

“They’ve committed to paying a billion dollars for the converters, but they’re not saying where we’re going to get it or who will be qualified to receive it,” Baca said.

Ors said his understanding is that public safety’s 700 MHz spectrum is not tied to the ability to fund the converter program.