Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee voted 21-4 to approve bipartisan legislation that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and provide $12 billion in federal funding to pay for the buildout of first-responder LTE networks nationwide. Most Beltway sources figured the measure would pass, but the overwhelming margin did raise some eyebrows.

Indeed, there were some affirmative votes from senators whom I was virtually certain would vote against the notion.

Not only does the 21-4 vote send a clear message to the rest of the Senate, the numbers certainly work in public safety’s favor, as well. If the support of committee members remains in place when the full Senate votes on the bill, only 40% of the rest of the Senate needs to vote in favor of it to send the bill to the House.

“We would have been happy with a majority vote that would get it out of the committee, but the fact that it went 21-4 was a huge win for public safety,” New York Police Department Deputy Chief Charles Dowd said during an interview.

Clearly, it was a very good day for public safety, which was thrilled with the committee vote. And the margin of victory is even more remarkable when you consider where this issue was a little more than two years ago.

At that time, there was considerable bickering within the public-safety community about how to make the vision of a 700 MHz broadband network for first responders a reality. Within public safety, some argued that the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) was too centralized and power hungry, while other said the approach by the Major Cities Chiefs was focused too narrowly on big cities and not on a more comprehensive nationwide rollout.

Frankly, public safety would have been hard-pressed to reach a 21-4 vote within its own ranks at this time.

With first responders divided, the idea that the 700 MHz D Block would be auctioned to commercial carriers seemed like a done deal. Democrats on Capitol Hill — still just months after a significant electoral victory — had been expressing the need for AT&T and Verizon to have other nationwide competitors, and new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seemed ready to oblige.

But things changed as public-safety leaders united around the need for the D Block, LTE as the network technology, and funding to make it happen. It was a long road, but the political tides changed last summer, when multiple pieces of legislation were introduced and the FCC officials became conspicuously silent on the notion of a D Block auction.

Yesterday marked the first actual vote on a bill to support a public-safety broadband network.

“After all the effort that we’ve put into this … to see that happen today was a beautiful thing,” Dowd said yesterday after the committee vote. “To be where we are today compared to where we were a year ago — or two years ago — it really has been a great thing to watch happen.”

Of course, Dowd quickly noted that the work is far from done. While prospects for passage in the Senate look promising, opposition in the House is expected to be much tougher. But that is sure to be the subject of many more future columns.

Right now, regardless of the bill’s ultimate outcome, public-safety officials should take note of what has been accomplished during this process. For years, first-responder representatives have complained that their voices have been drowned out in the halls of Capitol Hill by those of highly paid lobbyists representing corporations and special interests.

The fact that this bill has made its way out of committee after not being on most lawmakers’ radar screen just a year ago — amid a difficult budget cycle, no less — should be a source of encouragement for public safety. When speaking with a united voice, first responders’ needs still can be acknowledged at the highest levels of the federal government. And that’s the way it should be.

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