In arguably one of the most significant events in U.S. public-safety communications history, both houses of Congress today passed payroll-tax legislation to reallocate 700 MHz D Block spectrum to first responders and provide $7 billion in federal grant money for the deployment of a dedicated nationwide LTE network.

“This is going to transform public-safety communications the same way that two-way radio did in the 1930s,” said Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York City Police Department. “That’s how big of a change this is going to be.”

This morning, the House of Representatives voted 293-132 in favor of the measure, followed shortly by a 60-36 vote in the Senate to approve the bill, which was the product of House-Senate conference committee negotiations during the last two months. President Barack Obama has vowed to sign the legislation into law shortly after returning from a West Coast trip.

While the focal point of the legislation is to extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment benefits, the measure includes spectrum-policy language designed to make more airwaves available to commercial wireless operator via FCC auctions — a significant revenue source for the bill — and to address public-safety broadband needs.

With the reallocation of the D Block — the 10 MHz swath of spectrum adjacent to the airwaves licensed to the PSST — first responders will have 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum on which to deploy the proposed LTE network. The buildout of the network will be funded largely by the $7 billion in federal grants that the legislation dedicates for the task, $2 billion of which will be available before any auction proceeds are realized.

Many industry observers question whether $7 billion will be enough money to pay for public-safety LTE deployment throughout the nation, particularly in rural areas. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) had proposed legislation that would have allocated $11 billion for the network buildout, but he expressed confidence that the funding in the legislation will have a significant impact in the future.

“When you put $7 billion into a buildout of something of this nature, the public — if not the whole country — instantly and absolutely understands what is going on, so you can’t stop it,” Rockefeller said yesterday during a webcasted conference. “The point was to start it to the extent that you couldn’t stop it. And we did that.”

Although first responders will gain the D Block spectrum, the bill calls for public safety to return spectrum in the T-Band (470-512 MHz), which is used to support narrowband voice system in 14 of the largest metropolitan areas. Under the terms of the bill, this spectrum would have to be returned to the federal government in 9 to 11 years, and the federal government would cover costs to relocate public-safety systems. However, public safety will be allowed to keep its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum, where first-responder agencies have invested more than $2 billion in recent years to deploy LMR systems.

Other funding in the legislation includes $250 million for next-generation 911 deployments, $100 million for the FirstNet administration and as much as $300 million for research and development of public-safety broadband technology.

Currently, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) holds the license to public safety’s 10 MHz of broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band. Under the legislation, the license to that swath and the D Block will be held by the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet — an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that will have a board that includes significant public-safety representation.

Another aspect of the bill is a provision that allows public-private networking partnerships with entities such as for-profit, according to Brett Kilbourne, vice president of government affairs and legislative counsel for the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC).