Passage of legislation that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block and provide federal funding for the deployment and maintenance of public-safety LTE networks nationwide is a top priority, influential Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said yesterday during a hearing on the subject before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Rockefeller, who is chairman of the committee, said he believes the time is ripe for such legislation to become law, despite the concerns of fiscal conservatives on Capitol Hill, who fear that funding a public-safety broadband network during such difficult economic times would increase the massive federal deficit.

“This effort is about saving lives,” Rockefeller said during the hearing. “To those who say we cannot afford this now, I say that can — in no way — afford not do it. We have to do it, and we have to do it now.

“Let’s seize this moment. This is just the right thing to do. I have to say that this is my highest legislative priority for this committee. I say that happily, unabashedly and proudly.”

Last month, Rockefeller reintroduced a bill that would reallocate the D Block — slated to be auctioned to commercial operators under current law — to public safety and allow the FCC to conduct incentive spectrum auctions to generate revenue needed to help fund the network. President Barack Obama recently unveiled a similar plan supported by his administration.

Among those who spoke during the hearing was Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who last week introduced a bill in the House that would reallocate the D Block to public safety and provide funding for the network. King said current first-responder communications capabilities are “simply unacceptable” and expressed a desire to work with members of the Senate on legislation that would make a nationwide broadband network for public safety a reality.

In addition to the Rockefeller and King bills, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) — the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee — said she will be introducing overarching spectrum legislation that would reallocate the D Block to public safety. Beltway sources indicate that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) are expected to introduce a D Block–reallocation bill similar to the one they proposed last year.

All lawmakers and panelists speaking during the hearing agreed that public safety needs a dedicated broadband network that it controls. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and North Las Vegas Fire Chief Al Gillespie said reallocation of the D Block is needed to ensure that first responders have access to enough spectrum during times of most emergencies.

However, consultant Joe Hanna said he believes public safety would be better served if the D Block were auctioned to commercial carriers with the stipulation that first responders automatically would have priority access to the spectrum when they need it. Without commercial users using Band 14 spectrum — the D Block frequencies and the 10 MHz of airwaves licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — the price of devices could be much higher than public-safety officials anticipated when choosing to adopt a commercial standard like LTE.

“I think the greatest flaw [of reallocating the D Block to public safety] would be the unintended consequences of creating an island technology — a Band Class 14 subset that only first responders will use,” Hanna said. “With no commercial economies of scale, public safety will again find itself held hostage by a limited number of providers, resulting in the same low-demand, high-cost marketplace faced every day in the public-safety land-mobile environment.”

Hanna also expressed concern that current legislative proposals would not provide enough funding to support public-safety LTE rollouts throughout the country, a sentiment was echoed by several members on the committee. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he does not want to reallocate the D Block to public safety and then have most of the spectrum not being used five years from now.

“I’m particularly concerned that we don’t allocate a lot of spectrum that nobody can afford to develop,” Blunt said.

With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 less than seven months away, all committee members expressed a desire to establish a path toward a interoperable, nationwide broadband network as quickly as possible.

“We’ve got to get this done in a timely way, so that — as we approach 9/11 — we can show real, tangible progress and not continue to avoid the hard choices we need to make,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said.

For more information on broadband, including a discussion of the National Broadband Plan, attend these sessions at IWCE in Las Vegas, March 7-11, 2011.