Much-anticipated bipartisan legislation that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and provide $12 billion to fund the buildout of first-responder LTE networks nationwide was approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Commerce Committee, setting the stage for a full Senate vote on the bill this summer.

Committee members voted 21-4 in favor of the legislation sponsored by Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who have worked together closely on the initiative, which Rockefeller reiterated is his “top priority” before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We can give [first responders] the ability to share and disseminate information quickly … including fingerprints, floorplans of burning buildings, photos and video on an instant basis,” Rockefeller said during the markup session. “This is the same capacity that many teenagers have on their smartphones today. It’s an embarrassing comparison.”

Today’s action was applauded throughout the public-safety community, which has been working for more than a year on Capitol Hill to get lawmakers’ support for a bill that would provide the spectrum and funding needed to make public-safety mobile broadband access a reality.

“I don’t think we could have expected any better — we were thrilled with the results,” New York Police Department Deputy Chief Charles Dowd said during an interview. “We were just hoping to get it out of committee, but with that 21-4 bipartisan vote … that sent a really strong message to the Senate that this needs to get done.”

Funding for the buildout of public-safety broadband networks would be provided by the proceeds of spectrum auctions, including those of airwaves that TV broadcasters and other incumbent licensees would return to the government in exchange for financial compensation, known as incentive auctions.

Another provision would create a “Public Safety Broadband Corporation” (PSBC) that would serve as the spectrum licensee and governing body to help ensure interoperability between users of the broadband networks. The PSBC would replace the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) as the licensee for existing public safety’s 700 MHz broadband spectrum, which would be coupled with the adjacent D Block to support the LTE networks.

Hutchison and Rockefeller both thanked their staff members, who recently have spent long hours sorting through myriad proposals from lawmakers and incorporating them in the bill, so most expected amendment offerings were withdrawn by committee members. No timetable has been announced for a full Senate vote on the legislation, but most Beltway sources believe that will happen relatively soon.

Dowd described the overwhelming committee approval of the legislation as a “huge win for public safety,” but noted that public-safety officials will be in Washington, D.C., next week to help educate senators about the importance of the bipartisan legislation in preparation for a full Senate vote this summer.

Most expected the legislation to pass the committee, especially when Hutchison began working with Rockefeller on the bill.

Beltway sources believe the legislation has good prospects for approval in the Senate, but many expect passage will be much more difficult in the House, where newly elected fiscal conservatives are expressing concern about the costs associated with the legislation at a time when the national budget deficit has become a focal point.

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