A few lines in an appropriations bill conference report regarding the 700 MHz D Block has public-safety officials scrambling for clarification over directions to have the FCC auction the spectrum that many hoped would be reallocated for first-responder–agency use.

Citing the 9/11 Commission’s 2004 report that identified the need to increase the assignment of spectrum for first responders, the conference report states that “are disappointed that the Federal Government has yet to address this critical need. The FCC is directed to work expeditiously to conduct a successful auction of the D Block spectrum so that first responders have an interoperable communications network.”

Exactly what this means is what public-safety representatives are hoping to discern. A face-value read of the last sentence seems pretty clear — the FCC should auction the D block quickly (“expeditiously”) and in a manner that helps first responders realize the interoperable broadband network that has been debated for the last three years.

Under former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s plan to forge a public/private partnership with the D Block winner for a public-safety network, such direction would have made perfect sense. But last year’s D Block auction failed to attract a qualified commercial bidder, and the strategy was the subject of considerable criticism from many members of Congress.

During the past year, many new proposals have been made regarding the D Block, including public safety’s push to reallocate the spectrum for first responders and smaller commercial wireless carriers seeking the airwaves to be auctioned with no public-safety requirements.

Does the conference report mean that Congress has decided it wants the FCC to pursue the public/private partnership idea in another auction? Perhaps, but many Beltway sources believe that is not necessarily the sentiment on Capitol Hill. In fact, some suspect the language was simply lifted from last year’s bill and included in the latest legislation, which is why public-safety officials are eager for clarification as the bill is debated this week.

If left alone, the conference-report language could prove to be a blow to the public-safety community’s efforts to get the D Block reallocated, because the report indicates that Congress wants the FCC to auction the spectrum quickly, before public safety can really make its case to Capitol Hill.

In addition, a decision to proceed with a D Block auction could impact the plans of many of the entities seeking waivers to use the 10 MHz of spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) for their proposed broadband-network deployments. Depending on the public-safety requirements included in a proposed D Block auction, it could limit what waiver-seeking entities can do with the spectrum.

“We want all issues considered and not rush to auction, if there’s a better solution,” said Yucel Ors, director of legislative affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. “Rather than trying to auction [the D Block], let’s make a decision on the waivers.”

The good news for public safety is that the conference report is not completely binding; Congress always has the ability to change its mind regarding allocation of the spectrum. However, if the FCC proceeds “expeditiously” with a D Block auction, Congress may not have as many options to consider — including a reallocation for public-safety use.

Regardless of its eventual decision, let’s hope that Congress makes its D Block choice based on updated thoughts and information — not because it was easier to just include language from past legislation than to reword it.