Officials for the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau last week opened a proceeding to determine whether personnel from government and critical-infrastructure entities beyond police, fire and EMS should be allowed to use the 700 MHz broadband spectrum dedicated to public safety.

Comments are being sought after the city of Charlotte, N.C., filed a petition seeking a declaratory ruling on the matter. Under Section 337 of the Communications Act, entities qualifying as public safety are supposed to have “the protection of safety of life, health and property” as their sole or principal purpose.

There has been considerable debate surrounding the issue during recent months, particularly as 700 MHz waiver recipients that were not awarded federal stimulus grant monies seek alternative funding sources to build out proposed LTE networks for first-responder use. Many industry observers believe many of these mobile broadband networks will not be deployed unless traditional public-safety entities can combine their resources with other governmental departments and even non-governmental enterprises such as utilities.

Indeed, the notion of public safety partnering with utilities was a hot topic among speakers at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) show in Las Vegas earlier this month. Like public safety, utilities need reliable communications systems that are hardened to operate in difficult operating environments and have backup-power requirements that are similar to those used in mission-critical voice networks for first responders.

From a practical standpoint, the ability to access funding sources from utilities and other government entities could be critical to making the proposed public-safety LTE networks a reality, according to many industry observers.

However, some legal opinions indicate that the law limits use of the 700 MHz public-safety broadband spectrum only to police, fire and EMS personnel, and that an act of Congress would be required to change the position. Meanwhile, others believe the law provides enough flexibility to enable other government entities and certain non-government enterprises with public-safety responsibilities to leverage the proposed 700 MHz networks.

In its petition, the city of Charlotte asked the FCC to “resolve any ambiguity on this point by issuing a declaratory ruling clarifying that all governmental entities eligible … presumptively have as their sole or primary mission the safety of life, health and property, and, provided that emergency personnel are utilizing a 700 MHz broadband system, non-first responder government personnel may operate on the system as well.”

Comments in the proceeding are due to the FCC on April 11. Reply comments are due on April 21.