HOUSTON — Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau, this week reiterated the agency’s position that the 700 MHz D Block spectrum should be auctioned and that debate should continue on a number of critical issues related to the proposed public-safety broadband network, including roaming and funding for the network.

At the outset of a regulatory panel at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference, Barnett said “we have a disagreement” with public-safety officials’ belief that the D Block should be reallocated for first-responder use instead of being auctioned to commercial operators. However, Barnett said the FCC plans to be prepared to follow whatever direction Congress provides on the matter.

Barnett said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is deciding whether to initiate a proceeding to establish rules for a D Block auction, if Congress opts not to change existing law. Regardless of the direction lawmakers choose, Barnett said he believe it is important that the D Block decision be made soon.

“One of the things that would be bad for public safety is if the D Block is actually just kept out of the network, one way or another,” he said. “It ought to be integrated either through the auction process — a D Block licensee that has responsibilities toward public safety imposed on that licensee—or if Congress decides to reallocate [the spectrum to public safety].

Aside from the high-profile D Block topic, the FCC and public safety have considerable agreement about what is needed to make the public-safety broadband network a reality — a “common goal,” Barnett said.

In addition, Barnett said the FCC efforts to examine the prospect of allowing public-safety entities to use 700 MHz narrowband spectrum for broadband should not be interpreted as a “substitute” for the D Block or as action that should cause local and state entities to halt plans to construct LMR networks on the spectrum. Instead, the proposal is simply an attempt to start a debate of the long-term use of the spectrum, particularly after voice over broadband is deemed to be reliable enough for mission-critical uses, he said.

“Ultimately, there’s going to be a transition from narrowband into broadband as that [mission-critical] voice becomes available,” he said. “There’s nobody talking about the FCC mandating anything with regard to somebody having to shift [from narrowband to broadband]. The question is, if somebody is not going to use their 700 MHz narrowband, and if there was a way to use that [spectrum for broadband], is that something we should allow people to start thinking about and planning for?”

A key component of the FCC plan is to allow public-safety users to roam onto commercial networks when the public-safety network reaches its traffic capacity — something that FCC and public-safety officials agree will occur, even if the D Block is reallocated. While the FCC’s ability to include such rules in a D Block auction has never been doubted, many legal analysts have questioned with the agency has the authority to retroactively mandate public-safety roaming on 700 MHz spectrum already purchased by carriers such as AT&T and Verizon.

Barnett said he believes the FCC can ensure that agency’s framework will work.

“From a legal standpoint, we think it is possible in a proposed rule-making, although we do think there would be aspects [that there] would be compensation for the use of the spectrum,” Barnett said.

If public safety succeeds in getting Congress to reallocate the D Block, Barnett said he is concerned that it will be difficult to fund the initial LTE network deployments. However, Barnett said he is encouraged that federal lawmakers are discussing funding options for both the capital and operating expenses associated with the proposed network.

“I’m actually very encouraged that there’s a discussion about funding,” Barnett said. “I think lots of people — for the D Block and against the D Block — are talking about that we need a national funding and that there needs to be public funding for it. I think that’s a very positive development.”