The U.S. Senate yesterday approved a budget package that would require television broadcasters to clear the 700 MHz band in 38 months and allocate $1.2 billion for public-safety communications.

Most of the package was approved by the House of Representatives on Monday, the budget package—negotiated by House and Senate leaders in a conference committee—would be enacted after the House makes technical corrections and President George W. Bush signs the legislation, both of which are expected to occur.

However, parliamentary maneuvering this morning means the technical corrections could require the House and Senate to reconvene in a conference committee during January, said Yucel Ors, legislative director for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). That scenario would introduce the possibility of amendments being introduced that could jeopardize the 700 MHz provisions, he said.

“It should be [approved] fast,” Ors said. “But, then again, this is Congress … Nothing’s a done deal until the President signs it.”

Should the budget package be delayed for a significant time, Ors said he believe there will be sentiment to push the 700 MHz portions of the legislation as an independent bill in 2006.

If the legislation passed last night is enacted, valuable spectrum in the 700 MHz band will be released to public-safety entities and commercial operators on Feb. 17, 2009. Establishing a “hard” date for the transfer of the 700 MHz airwaves has been a priority for lawmakers, because existing law would have let broadcasters continue to transmit analog signals over the frequencies until 85% of all TV sets could receive digital transmissions—a threshold that analysts projected could take a decade or longer to reach.

Of the 700 MHz spectrum being cleared, 24 MHz is earmarked for public safety, while the rest will be auctioned to commercial operators in a bidding process that is expected to generate an additional $10 billion in revenue for the U.S. Treasury.

Of that amount, $7.3 billion would be allocated to reduce the budget deficit and as much as $1.5 billion would be earmarked for a program to provide low-cost converters so owners of analog TV sets can receive digital signals.

Most of the remaining funds from the auction would be focused on public safety—$1 billion for state and local interoperability grants, $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 last year.

If the 700 MHz auction attracts higher bids than projected, public safety could realize another $1 billion in interoperability funds and another $1 billion in emergency-preparedness grants via provisions in defense-budget legislation, Ors said. The Senate approved the defense budget late last night after lawmakers struck a controversial Alaska-oil-drilling proposal from the legislation.

Ors said that change will require the House to reconsider the defense budget, which likely will be approved by voice vote late this afternoon.