The battle to establish an interoperable, nationwide broadband network for public safety appears to be over.

Congress passed legislation on Friday, Feb. 17, that reallocates the 700 MHz “D Block” section of the airwaves for the network and supplies $7 billion in federal grant money to kick-start the project. For more than a decade, public safety advocates had been seeking federal approval for a high-speed wireless system that connects police and firefighters across multiple jurisdictions.

The spectrum and network provisions were tucked into the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 (H.R. 3630) — which extends social security tax breaks for the middle class and unemployment benefits. President Obama is expected to sign the bill in the coming days.

Funding for the system will come out of an expected $22 billion stemming from future FCC auctions to commercial wireless providers of unused airwaves and “white space” spectrum — the band of frequencies between TV channels that are currently blank and serve as a buffer between the broadcast signals of various stations. Wireless communications placed in white space aren’t expected to be powerful enough to interfere with TV transmissions.

Thanks to the legislation, the reallocation of D Block means that public safety will have 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum to launch the nationwide wireless broadband network. In addition, public safety also won’t be required to return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum.

A number of lawmakers and government, public safety and wireless industry groups praised the deal as a way to relieve a growing shortage of wireless spectrum and improve emergency communications throughout the U.S.

“This reallocation of the D Block is what first responders and I have long advocated for and would fulfill one of the final, still unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, in a statement. “Additionally, I am pleased that the legislation includes necessary funding for the construction and maintenance of the network and ensures the input of federal, state and local leaders.”

The project’s governance will be handled by The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

In an interview with Government Technology on Saturday, Feb. 18, Harlin McEwen, chairman of the communications and technology committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), said he was “elated” by the decision made by Congress, but he added that the bill is confusing as to who will do what and when in terms of the next steps.

“It’s really hard to predict what will happen until [NTIA] sets up the process and identifies people that will be involved,” McEwen said. “The bill sets up some advisory groups with public safety representatives, and we don’t know who those people will be and when they will meet.”

Partnerships Paramount

Funding could be a significant challenge. McEwen said that although the $7 billion is a good start, it would “probably not” be enough to complete a nationwide public safety broadband network.

McEwen stressed the importance of working with industry leaders to make the project a reality and explained that the vision is to create public-private partnerships (PPPs) with the four major nationwide wireless providers and smaller carriers such as U.S. Cellular and Metro PCS.

“I think there will be partnerships with them and with other major companies who will bring resources to the table, such as infrastructure, technology and expertise in how to build-out a nationwide LTE (long term evolution) network,” McEwen said. “If all those people come together, that could result in … significant cost savings in a way that would make that $7 billion go a lot longer.”

Amy Storey, a spokesperson with CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the wireless industry, wrote in an email to Government Technology that members of the organization have a “diverse opinion” on the public safety matter and don’t have a position on it.

The group did say, however, that the bill represents an important step toward meeting spectrum needs.

“Ultimately, today’s vote was a resounding victory for consumers and the American economy,” said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, in a press release. “Making spectrum available will make it possible for America’s wireless carriers to offer consumers better, faster, more ubiquitous wireless broadband service.”

With the project being dependent on federal legislation, funding and oversight, will states have a voice in how the public safety broadband network is implemented? McEwen said the states that have been investing in technology and are early builders need to have a major say.

A solid nationwide plan is probably most effective being implemented by each state, he added. States need to gear up and be ready to contribute and coordinate on the project as it moves forward.

“What we’re concerned about is that some states will step up and do it and some may not. And if they don’t, there has to be a plan to fill in for those states where they don’t aggressively do their job,” McEwen said.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.