FCC commissioners yesterday unanimously approved a proposed rulemaking calling for a nationwide broadband communications system to be constructed and maintained via a public-private partnership on half of the 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum currently earmarked for public-safety use.

Several features in the item are similar to a proposal made by Cyren Call Communications, including the allocation of spectrum to a national public-safety broadband licensee that could lease the airwaves to operators offering commercial services when public safety is not using the spectrum.

The key difference between the proposals is that the spectrum targeted by the FCC is the 12 MHz of 700 MHz frequencies currently allocated for public-safety wideband, while Cyren Call has proposed using 30 MHz of spectrum in the 700 band currently scheduled for auction to commercial operators in early 2008. In addition, the item would let the public-safety licensee operate on the 12 MHz of public-safety narrowband spectrum on a secondary basis.

Earlier this month, the FCC dismissed Cyren Call’s rulemaking petition on the grounds that it could not consider a plan that contradicts an auction mandate from Congress. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin noted that Congress ultimately would determine the allocation of 700 MHz spectrum.

“I think it’s important to recognize that this isn’t a substitute for many of the other proposals out there that other people have an opportunity to consider and that Congress is considering, but we need to do all we can to address those issues in a creative way,” Martin said. “This is an opportunity for us to do so.”

All commissioners hailed the item as an example of “creative” and “innovative” work on the part of the commission’s new public-safety bureau. While applauding the direction of the item, Commissioner Michael Copps noted that implementing such a public-private partnership will be a difficult task.

“It raises a host of complex technical and policy questions, and the margin for error is exceedingly and uniquely low,” Copps said. “We have to be especially confident that there are no unintended consequences falling from any actions we approve. At the same time, given the long-standing need for reform in this area, we can’t afford to ignore innovative ideas that could potentially revolutionize existing public-safety spectrum management.”

While public-safety entities overwhelmingly expressed support for the Cyren Call proposal during a recently completed public-comment period, it may be more difficult to reach such a consensus on spectrum that these organizations may have existing plans to utilize.

“I’ll be interested to see what our public-safety constituents think about that,” said Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). “We’ll be taking some action to find out what they think about it, and we’ll be responding to it.

“We want to stress is that this doesn’t alleviate the need for additional spectrum for broadband for public safety. We will continue to push for the 30 MHz of spectrum.”