During the past year, debate on Capitol Hill regarding 700 MHz spectrum and funding needed to make the vision of a nationwide broadband network for public safety a reality has been considerable, with the hot topic being the subject of numerous hearings. Tomorrow, most Beltway sources expect the first tangible action on the matter.

That’s when the Senate Commerce Committee will conduct a markup session for S.911, a bipartisan bill being sponsored by committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and provide funding for LTE network deployments throughout the country.

Today, the Public Safety Alliance reiterated its support for the much-anticipated legislation, the details of which have not officially been introduced but have been known to most interested parties for weeks. In addition to D Block reallocation and $12.5 billion in funding, the draft version of the legislation proposes multiple spectrum auctions and would replace the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — the current licensee of public safety’s 700 MHz broadband spectrum — with a new entity, the Public Safety Broadband Corporation.

These aspects are not expected to be major points of contention, but other features of the proposed legislation could lead to some very pointed debates.

Probably the biggest concern to the first-responder community are proposals requiring public safety to give back some of its existing narrowband spectrum to the government, which would then be able to auction the airwaves to help offset the costs associated with the public-safety LTE networks.

Not surprisingly, first-responder representatives are not anxious to give back precious spectrum, but most do not object to the notion, provided that public-safety entities are able to replace that narrowband functionality effectively, probably via a mission-critical-voice application delivered over broadband and available in peer-to-peer mode. Until that capability is available — and that could take a few years or decades, depending on which industry source you believe — public safety believes it should keep its LMR investments.

With this in mind, proposals that call for public safety to give back spectrum on a date certain during the next decade are not practical, according to most first-responder representatives.
Some amendments that may be proposed will call for public safety to give back its 700 MHz and 800 MHz narrowband spectrum, which would defeat the long-term goal, according to Sean Kirkendall, spokesman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

“APCO has always contended that we’re going to need 30 MHz for broadband in the future,” Kirkendall said . “It’s always been anticipated that that narrowband [spectrum] … could be converted to broadband sometime in the future, not given back.”

Eventually, public safety is open to the notion of relinquishing at least some of its existing VHF and/or UHF narrowband channels, but only after a mission-critical-voice alternative exists. However, proposals that mandate public safety to clear such airwaves within a decade under all conditions are very troublesome, because some agencies could be left without an option for mission-critical voice, if one is not available by the deadline, Kirkendall said.

On the other hand, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) have proposed that the FCC regularly review whether migrating public safety off of existing narrowband spectrum below 512 MHz would makes technological and economic sense — for instance, whether there a mission-critical voice option and can the migration be funded — before requiring public safety to clear the airwaves.

“The Lieberman-McCain language … makes sure that, if there is [spectrum] sharing or giveback, it makes sense,” Kirkendall said. “It’s good policy. We’re much more comfortable with that language.”

While such language clearly benefits public safety, it would make it tougher for lawmakers focused on trying to balance the budget, because they can only “score” in the budget a spectrum giveback that can be auctioned within 10 years — a circumstance that will be highlighted even more, if the debate reaches the House.

Regardless of the outcome for this and other issues related to the matter, it will be good to see public-safety broadband legislation be voted upon by lawmakers, instead of simply being debated again. As we near the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the time for such tangible action as getting this kind bill out of committee is certainly appropriate, if not long overdue.

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