Payroll-tax deal includes D Block, billions for public safety
Congress is expected to pass legislation this week that will reallocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum and provide $7 billion in federal grant money for the deployment of a nationwide LTE network designed to meet the wireless broadband needs of first responders, according to a key public-safety official.
These much-anticipated provisions are part of spectrum language included in legislation that will extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment benefits. Final language for the comprehensive bill is being written today. The House and Senate expected to pass the measure before going on a scheduled break next week, according to Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which currently holds the license for public-safety broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band.
“I think it’s a done deal, unless some other big controversy erupts,” McEwen said. “It’s very heartening, to be honest, that — after all these years of work and struggle — everybody came together for a solution. Until the vote is completed and the president signs it, it’s a little early to speculate. But from all indications, it looks very favorable.”
Key public-safety components of the deal include reallocation of the D Block — the 10 MHz swath of spectrum adjacent to the airwaves licensed to the PSST—to public safety, meaning first responders will have 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum on which to deploy the proposed LTE networks, McEwen said. Much of that deployment will be paid for with the $7 billion in federal funding that is supposed to be part of the bill.
“It’s not as much as we’d hoped, but it’s better than it might have been,” McEwen said.
One of the most significant aspects of the deal is the fact that public safety will not be required to return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum, which was something that some key House Republicans have sought during the past several months. However, it is possible that public safety might have to return spectrum in another band to the federal government, but that won’t be known until the language in the bill is finalized, McEwen said.
Another big concern for first responders has been the governance model for the proposed broadband network. House Republicans have advocated a for-profit administrator model, similar to the approach used to implement 800 MHz rebanding. Public-safety representatives supported the establishment of a non-profit public-safety corporation, as proposed in a bill that was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee.
Instead, the deal calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to oversee the buildout and management of the proposed LTE network. While some first responders may be concerned that the NTIA role could signal a stronger federal presence than public-safety officials want, McEwen said he believes the approach can be effective, if structured correctly.
“If they [NTIA officials] are just overall in charge, and there is meaningful public-safety participation and … meaningful input into the decision-making over the control of the network, that would be fine,” he said.
The public-safety provisions of the legislation are part of spectrum language that expands the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum to airwaves currently licensed to television broadcasters. Proceeds from these incentive auctions and other spectrum auctions will be used to pay for the public-safety LTE network and to provide funds to offset the cost of extending unemployment benefits.
Although many of the most important public-safety pieces of the legislation have been released, several aspects remained unknown as of press time. Public-safety officials hope that language will be released by the end of the day clarifying when the funding will be available, who will hold the spectrum license and whether non-public-safety entities can access the proposed network.