Leaders of four key public-safety organizations last week asked President-elect Barack Obama to allow first-responder agencies to use 700 MHz spectrum for their communications system as scheduled on Feb. 17, even if the digital-television (DTV) transition is delayed as Obama has requested.

By requiring television broadcasters to transmit signals using only digital technology by Feb. 17, the federal government made large swaths of 700 MHz available for commercial and public-safety wireless uses. While most of this spectrum was auctioned to commercial wireless operators a year ago, 24 MHz is dedicated to public-safety use.

But federal officials are becoming increasingly worried that millions of U.S. citizens will not be ready for the DTV transition and would be without access to a television signal if the switch was made as current law dictates. A coupon program designed to provide converter boxes that enable analog televisions to receive digital signals reportedly has run out of money, and many question whether the U.S. population has been educated enough about the transition.

With this in mind, Obama last week asked that the DTV transition be delayed for several months, so concerns about the switch to digital signals can be addressed. Because the Feb. 17 date has been established by law, Congress would have to pass new legislation amending the transition timetable.

If Congress grants such a delay and broadcasters are required to continue transmitting analog signals, the analog spectrum would not be available for wireless use on those frequencies. This scenario would create a hardship for public-safety entities that are planning to utilize the spectrum, according to the letter from the leaders of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).

“All fifty states have already received licenses to operate on portions of the new spectrum, and many agencies across the nation have already acquired radios capable of operating in the 700 MHz band,” the letter states. “There is also at least one and perhaps a couple other instances in which a public safety agency has received or is currently seeking special FCC approval to utilize spectrum on a television channel being relinquished as a result of the DTV transition.”

Exempting the four TV channels that affect public safety would not impact the vast majority of broadcasters across the country, so the strategic benefits of a delay still could be realized, said John Powell, chairman of NPSTC’s interoperability committee.

“It doesn’t bother us, as long as you don’t delay any spectrum being used by public safety,” Powell said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “You have to exempt public safety, because we’ve been counting on turning up millions of dollars in systems in February.”

Of the 700 MHz spectrum dedicated to public safety, half has been earmarked for a nationwide broadband network that currently is tied to the fate of the commercial D Block. While even a lengthy DTV delay would not impact public safety’s ability to use those frequencies, many first-responder agencies are planning to utilize the narrowband spectrum in the band for networks that primarily support LMR voice applications.