Tucked into an economic legislative agreement reached early Thursday was a plan to auction off $22 billion worth of spectrum held by commercial broadcasters that will go to consumer networks and public safety first responders.

The bill, which could go to vote as early as this week, could realize a key goal by the Obama administration and the Federal Communications Commission to bolster America’s wireless networks, which are already feeling the strain of smartphones and tablets gobbling up Internet data on the go.

A portion of funds raised by voluntary auctions of that spectrum would be set aside for public safety officials to build their own inter-operable high-speed data network — a key goal of Homeland Security officials since Sept. 11, 2001.

The much-anticipated spectrum legislation was part of the $150 billion bill approved by congressional negotiators that will extend a payroll holiday and unemployment benefits.

As reported by The Washington Post’s Paul Kane:

Another last-minute dispute, according to lawmakers and aides in both parties, involved a plan to raise at least $15 billion in revenue from selling off public spectrum to telecommunication companies for better mobile communication. This has been a key issue for homeland security officials ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after which emergency first responders began requesting their own frequency to better communicate with federal officials during disasters.

On Wednesday, negotiators agreed to auction off $22 billion worth of the spectrum to the industry, then siphon $7 billion of that into a fund for federal maintenance of a frequency dedicated to emergency first responders.

Details of the bill haven’t been disclosed. Broadcasters are worried that the auction will force them to relocate channels in less attractive swaths of airwaves. And they want to ensure handsome terms of “incentive auctions,” where they voluntarily give up airwaves in exchange for proceeds from the auction.

Wireless firms hailed the spectrum proposal, promising that the availability of more airwaves to develop into 4G high-speed mobile Internet networks will create more jobs.

“Mobile data usage is expected to grow by a factor of 16 over the next five years,” said Steve Largent, president of wireless trade group CTIA. “The spectrum made available by this legislation is key to meeting that demand, as well as to enabling the industry to support advances in areas like mHealth and smart energy.”


Verizon ends unlimited data

Verizon, cable companies strike spectrum deal, cross-marketing