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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House will support legislation ensuring a block of airwaves are used for public safety rather than going to commercial wireless providers, a senior administration official said on Thursday.
Allocating the so-called D Block of spectrum to public safety groups would provide an extra 10 megahertz of airwaves to build out a nationwide mobile broadband network for emergency services.
This highly sought after segment of the 700 megahertz band of airwaves has become the object of a tug-of-war among wireless companies, public safety groups, lawmakers and regulators at the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has pledged to improve mobile communication capabilities for first responders during large-scale emergencies.
The FCC is currently under instruction from Congress to auction off the airwaves to bring in an estimated $3.1 billion to help lower the deficit.
But the D Block, intended under the previous plan to be shared with public safety users, failed to attract enough bids during auctions to commercial carriers in 2008 that otherwise raised about $19 billion for the U.S. government.
The White House believes it can more than make up the money through plans to auction surplus television airwaves to the commercial wireless industry.
The wireless industry is split on where the D Block airwaves should go. Smaller carriers such as T-Mobile, the U.S. unit of Deutsche Telekom AG, are seeking to acquire more spectrum to better compete with powerhouses AT&T Inc and Verizon Wireless, a venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc.
Companies like AT&T and Verizon have favored giving the D Block to public safety groups.
The senior official, who spoke on condition of not being named, said the White House would like to see Congress pass legislation within the year to preserve the D Block for public safety.
The announcement comes after a nine-month interagency review, including talks with stakeholders and lawmakers.
The administration's comprehensive wireless initiative is aimed at expanding high-speed wireless services to meet the voracious appetite of consumers and businesses.
"Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans," President Barack Obama said during his annual State of the Union speech to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.
The Obama administration has endorsed making 500 megahertz of spectrum available over the next 10 years to meet the growing demand for broadband services accessed by devices like Apple Inc's iPhone.
The government has been hunting for underused spectrum, and is seeking to entice broadcasters to voluntarily give up spectrum by allowing them to receive a portion of the proceeds from the auction of their airwaves.
Congress must give the FCC authority before such auctions can go ahead.
Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Tim Dobbyn