Members of a key House subcommittee today voted 17-6 to pass a bill that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and provide at least $5 billion in funding for the deployment of a nationwide LTE network for first responders, and that calls for public safety to return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum to the FCC in the future.

Sponsored by House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the legislation represents a compromise between Democrats, most of whom have advocated D Block reallocation to public safety, and Republicans who previously have called for the D Block to be auctioned to commercial operators, as current law mandates.

“I think there is a good balance here, and I think Republicans have come a long way on these measures and have a bill that works for growing jobs and for public safety, from our perspective,” Walden said.

Indeed, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the subcommittee, applauded Walden’s willingness to include D Block reallocation in the bill, describing it as a “big step” toward a workable solution. However, Eshoo said she would have preferred Walden to work with her and other subcommittee Democrats on three issues — creation of unlicensed spectrum, auction bidding rules and the governance model of the nationwide public-safety network — before conducting today’s markup, so the subcommittee could reach a consensus on the matter.

Eshoo and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) this week introduced legislation that would have addressed the three issues in a manner that would align better with Democratic Party policies. Like Walden’s bill, the Eshoo-Waxman bill calls for public safety to relinquish its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum, although the transition likely would happen more slowly than it would under Walden’s proposal, according to sources.

A key point of debate about the proposed 700 MHz broadband network for public safety has been the governance model that should be used. The Walden bill calls for each of the 50 states to establish LTE buildout plans under the supervision of a private national administrator, while the Esho-Waxman bill calls for a national governance structure.

“If the governance model is not right, it ain’t going to work,” Eshoo said during the markup.

The Eshoo-Waxman legislation was introduced during the markup but was rejected by the subcommittee by a 16-8 vote.
Eshoo and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) were more successful in offering an amendment that would provide $250 million in funding for next-generation 911 projects during the next five years. That bipartisan proposal was approved unanimously by the subcommittee.

“It’s imperative that we not leave our call centers [behind]” as public safety embarks on the migration to broadband technologies, Eshoo said.

Some of the key differences between S.911 and the Walden legislation are that the Senate bill calls for $5-7 billion more in LTE network funding, while the Walden bill is expected to generate about $8 billion more in deficit reduction. However, the most notable difference in the two bills is that House legislation requires public safety to return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum to the FCC five years after mission-critical broadband voice is deemed to be a viable option.

This has been a source of concern for first-responder representatives, because many public-safety agencies have deployed large, expensive 700 MHz narrowband systems in recent years or are in the process of constructing them, so the prospect of abandoning those systems in less than 10 years may not be politically or financially practical. First-responder representatives have proposed to lawmakers that public safety eventually return other spectrum to the FCC — 4.9 GHz frequencies are mentioned often — but Capitol Hill has been much more interested in the 700 MHz narrowband swath, according to Beltway sources.

During the markup, the spectrum-giveback proposal was rarely mentioned, although Walden acknowledged public safety’s position.

“I know public safety wants more,” Walden said. “They want [the] D Block; they want $10 billion; they don’t want to give back any spectrum — I’ve been in those meetings, and I’ve seen the e-mails. But I don’t know of anybody else who is coming to Capitol Hill today that is being offered what we’re proposing to offer.

“I just look at it and say that we’re having to make tough budget decisions all over this Hill. This country is in debt up to its eyeballs … and we’re trying to carve out $6.5 billion, which I think is reasonable, to build a new network and finally make good on a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission that dealt with this 10 years ago.”

For public safety, the subcommittee’s action is an important step to making the sector’s vision for D Block reallocation and a dedicated, nationwide LTE network for first responders a reality. Previously, some Beltway sources questioned whether any D Block reallocation legislation could be passed by the House Commerce Committee, which is controlled by Republicans that have favored auctioning the spectrum.

But the prospect of the Walden bill passing the House Commerce Committee appears to be strong, as committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) expressed support for the bill during today’s markup. With today’s subcommittee approval, the Walden bill will next be considered by the House Commerce Committee, the relevant committee with jurisdiction on spectrum matters.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Commerce Committee overwhelming approved S.911, which would reallocate the D Block to public safety and provide $12 billion in funding for deployment of a nationwide LTE network. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) — co-sponsor of S.911 with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) — this week reportedly described the Walden bill as “complementary” to S.911 and expressed a desire to enact spectrum legislation early next year.

“We’re very appreciative for what everybody on the subcommittee did today — we thank them for their efforts and for moving the ball forward,” said Richard Mirgon, former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). “However, we would like to continue discussion with them to fine-tune some of the points in their bill to ensure that public safety can continue to operate and provide services that we rely on.”