FCC officials plan to establish an interoperability center and rule on 700 MHz broadband waiver requests by mid-summer, as well as prepare for a D Block auction next year and help lobby Congress for funding critical to the proposed buildout of a nationwide public-safety network, according to Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau.

FCC commissioners are considering a draft order to establish the Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC), which will provide technical guidance to ensure that the proposed wireless broadband network for first responders is interoperable nationwide, Barnett said. Creating ERIC will allow the FCC to act on waiver requests — primarily from big cities — to build 700 MHz broadband wireless networks early that will be integrated into the nationwide network.

“I’d like to act on [the 700 MHz broadband waiver requests] by early summer,” Barnett said yesterday. “I’m pressing the team to see if we might even be able to do it before early summer. I would like to move forward on that. Sometimes things slip, but I hope by mid-summer we’d have something out.”

Public-safety entities granted waivers for early buildouts of the 700 MHz network would operate on 10 MHz of spectrum in the band licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), Barnett said. Although national first-responder organizations are lobbying Capitol Hill to get the adjacent D Block commercial spectrum reallocated to public safety, “I just don’t think there’s any traction on the reallocation of the D Block” in Congress, he said.

With this in mind, the FCC is preparing to auction the D Block to commercial bidders in either the first quarter or the second quarter of 2011, Barnett said.

“The plan is to sell the D Block — Congress has designated that for commercial use and has mandated that it be auctioned,” he said. “I know that there is a mystical and spiritual bond between public safety and the D Block, but the fact of the matter is that the D Block was never given to public safety.”

Under the FCC plan, the public-safety broadband network would operate on the PSST spectrum. When the network is unavailable for capacity reasons or outages, public-safety users would be allowed to roam on commercial LTE networks with priority access. The details of that arrangement will be the subject of an FCC proceeding in the near future, Barnett said.

The key to the FCC’s plan for the public-safety network is funding from Congress. The network buildout is expected to cost $6.5 billion, based on being able to construct the network in conjunction with commercial deployments. If this joint buildout plan is not executed, the deployment cost is expected to double.

While some areas of the country—many entities applying for the 700 MHz waivers, for example—have the financial resources to pay for their own LTE network deployments, most of the nation cannot afford such expenditures, particularly in a down economy. This reality means securing the necessary appropriations from Congress vital, Barnett said.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to convey to our public-safety leaders is that, without funding, there will not be a nationwide, interoperable public-safety network,” he said. “This is a carefully crafted plan that takes advantage of the commercial 4G buildouts to save public safety and state and local governments literally billions of dollars. That puts a time element into it — it has to occur soon, so you can catch that buildout.”

Indeed, Barnett said he would like to see Congress commit to funding the network before the FCC conducts the D Block auction, but he emphasized that the auction is not predicated on the appropriation.

“If you don’t have funding, [public-safety network coverage] won’t go everywhere, Barnett said. “If it doesn’t go everywhere, it’s not nationwide. If it’s not nationwide, it’s not interoperable. And, if we wait, it becomes absolutely unaffordable.

“[The proposed cost of] $6.5 billion for buildout is a good chunk of money in this environment anyway, but it goes up substantially if we wait. That’s why funding — and funding now — is so crucial, and it’s why we really need to focus on that and provide the information and support to the Congressional leaders that they need to move forward with it.”