Last summer, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) announced that he would propose legislation that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and provide a funding mechanism for a nationwide LTE network, which was a major factor in turning the political tide in the nation’s capital in favor of first responders.

Almost as soon as Rockefeller — chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC — expressed his intentions, FCC officials who previously expressed interest in auctioning the D Block to commercial operators early this year immediately became quiet about the subject. Despite the wishes of many wireless carriers, the agency declined to even pursue a proceeding to establish rules for such an auction.

While most Beltway pundits believe public safety captured valuable momentum on Capitol Hill, there was little tangible evidence to show for it. Several D Block–reallocation bills have been introduced this year, but there was little talk of the proposals being voted — until this week.

Today, Rockefeller and four other Democratic senators — Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — called on the House and Senate to pass legislation that would reallocate the D Block to public safety and authorize the FCC to conduct incentive spectrum auctions, the proceeds of which would be used to fund a significant portion of the proposed first-responder LTE networks.

The goal is to make Rockefeller’s bill a law by Sept. 11, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil.

To meet this timeline, some sort of legislative action was sorely needed, so Rockefeller’s pronouncement should be welcome news to most public-safety supporters. However, cynics may note that no Republicans were part of today’s announcement, even though Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) have introduced their own bills that would reallocate the D Block to public safety.

Many Beltway sources believe there is bipartisan support to reallocate the D Block to public safety, but there is concern among some in Washington that conducting incentive auctions will not generate enough revenue to compensate incumbent licensees, fund deployment of a nationwide public-safety network and still have more than $10 billion left over to help reduce the massive national deficit, as Rockefeller claims.

If incentive auctions can meet these revenue expectations, the Rockefeller bill appears to be a winning proposal for everyone involved. However, because incentive auctions have never been conducted before, the revenue projections cannot be view as a “sure thing” by any means — a fact that fiscal conservatives in the House likely will note as the subject gets debated.

For public safety, the ideal scenario would be for the debate to center on how to fund the 700 MHz broadband deployments, not if funding the much-anticipated LTE networks and reallocating the D Block is the right choice. Unfortunately, decisions on Capitol Hill rarely are made so easily.

Instead, public-safety representatives should continue to make the case for first responders’ need to access broadband and not get too discouraged — or too encouraged — by public statements by lawmakers that may amount to little more than political posturing. At the end of the day, hopefully there is enough will on Capitol Hill to find a way to make this work, because no elected official wants the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to arrive with no clear path to provide public safety with the modern communication tools that most agree is needed.

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