During a House subcommittee hearing today, elected officials and panelists representing the public-safety and commercial sectors provided frank assessments of the prospects for making a nationwide 700 MHz broadband network for public safety something that can be used, not just a pipe dream that is discussed at trade shows.

The bad news is that elected officials essentially shot down all of the existing plans being proposed today as not being economically viable. The good news — along with the growing consensus that the network needs 20 MHz of spectrum — is that at least some of the same elected officials suggested that Congress should provide funding support that could make the much-debated network a reality.

Finally.

Mind you, the notion of federal funding for this proposed network is nothing new. It’s been discussed by members of the public-safety community and commercial-sector wireless industry observers almost from day Morgan O’Brien outlined his concept for the network. Most have felt that some sort of federal aid would be needed to bridge the economic gap between building a commercial network and building a network that would meet public-safety standards while being within affordable to first-responder agencies.

But federal funding was conspicuously absent from most public conversations on Capitol Hill until today, when subcommittee chairman Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) were among those mentioning the possibility.

Such statements caused me to flash back to the end of last year, when the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) proposed that $15 billion for the public-safety network be included in the stimulus package. Almost as soon as the word got out, I quickly received a call from representative of commercial carrier asking for any details I had on the proposal, because such an infusion of federal dollars would be “game changer” in the economics of the proposed public-private partnership that was on the table at the time.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between a few individual congressmen tossing out an idea and having Congress actually appropriate money for a project, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Without federal funds, it appears that broadband-network buildouts could be done in pockets of the country where certain first-responder entities and/or commercial operators have resources and see opportunities. But such deployments would not be nationwide in the near term, and it could be a long time before broadband capabilities reach many locations, particularly those in rural areas.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he wants the broadband network to be built quickly, to be nationwide and to have minimal impact on the commercial wireless sector. For all of these goals to be met, some sort of federal funding mechanism almost has to be part of the equation, particularly in the current economy that is woefully short on speculative capital.

What is needed is greater data about the cost of the network, so Congress has an educated idea how much it would need to fund — up front and possibly on an ongoing basis. Today, PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen estimated the network could cost between $20 billion and $40 billion. Last year, Congress heard FCC commissioners give a $6 billion estimate, and I’ve heard estimates that were 10 times that amount. Obviously, more precision is needed.

The fact is, the ultimate cost will depend largely on public-safety requirements and how much existing infrastructure from the public-safety and commercial sectors can be leveraged. What Congress needs are reasonable estimates under the various scenarios, so it can even consider making appropriations for the cause.

Meanwhile, public-safety officials must be careful of not falling into the trap of thinking Congress is going to provide even a dime until the money is appropriated (even votes to authorize money do not mean funding will be made available, as the 911 community has learned in recent years). Instead, public-safety representatives and the FCC should continue to pursue funding options that do not rely on federal dollars, while noting areas where federal funding could transform questionable proposals into economically viable plans.