Public-safety agencies need the 700 MHz D Block spectrum and funding from commercial spectrum auctions to make a nationwide, wireless broadband network for first responders a reality, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said today during a hearing on the subject.

Rockefeller, the author of legislation that would reallocate the D Block to public safety and provide funding for the buildout and operation of the proposed network, said the need to provide first responders with an interoperable broadband network is especially critical as the U.S. is less than a year from the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which underlined a lack of interoperable communications between first responders.

“This is our chance to do it. We’re crazy if we don’t do it,” Rockefeller said during the hearing, which was webcast. “And what our discipline is the sheer national embarrassment if we come up to Sept. 11, 2011, and we don’t have this system and we don’t have it being developed.”

If enacted, Rockefeller’s legislation would kill plans for the 10 MHz D Block to be auctioned to commercial wireless carriers. Instead, the airwaves would be combined with adjacent spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) to provide a 20 MHz spectral foundation for a nationwide public-safety network.

Rockefeller said proposals that call for public safety to rely on the ability to roam on commercial 700 MHz networks are flawed, because first responders need to be able to communicate in locations that commercial carriers will not serve.

“Please don’t try to convince somebody from West Virginia that wireless operators or broadband operators have any interest in [serving] rural West Virginia — they don’t, because there’s no money there,” he said. “This is the way the commercial sector works, because they won’t put up the towers. That’s why we have to have the money provided in here for [public safety] to put up the towers, because [commercial carriers] won’t.

“Telecommunications companies are not kind to rural areas, because it’s not in the interest of their shareholders to be kind to rural areas. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

San Jose (Calif.) Police Chief Robert Davis testified that representatives of commercial carriers said at a forum this week that their business models would not work if public safety was given the pre-emptive rights and controls that first-responders agencies are seeking when roaming — a circumstance that would occur more often if public safety has 10 MHz instead of the 20 MHz that would be available through D Block reallocation.

Jeff Johnson, immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), expressed concerns that commercial networks will not be available when significant events occur, because commercial carriers do not harden their systems to survive extreme situations as public-safety agencies do.

“Pre-emption on a network that is down is not helpful to public safety,” Johnson said.

Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau, said the FCC has conducted research indicating that the swath of PSST spectrum combined with priority roaming on 700 MHz commercial networks would serve the needs of public safety. However, Barnett said the agency’s top priority is to ensure that the 700 MHz for first responders is built as quickly as possible, whether the D Block is part of the equation or not.

“We will work with you … to achieve this goal, no matter what Congress decides to do,” Barnett said, emphasizing that it will be much less expensive to build out the public-safety network in conjunction with commercial 700 MHz deployments. “The cost of not being prepared is too great. The cost of not seizing this technological opportunity cannot be recovered.”

Of the senators testifying, only Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he opposed to the notion of reallocating the D Block, noting that public safety has spectrum in other bands that could be used to resolve its broadband issues. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said she is willing to support reallocation but expressed concern about funding such a network as governments at all levels are facing budget cuts.

Rockefeller said funding should not be an issue, because his bill calls for revenues from spectrum auctions and the leasing of network capacity to secondary user to pay for the buildout of the network and operating costs.

“In effect, it pays for everything we’ve been talking about here this morning,” Rockefeller said. “The question of who’s going to pay for it and how we’re going to do it is solved by the bill itself.”