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Frontline to Verizon: Let's Rumble!

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Lost in the iPhone news shuffle late last week was Frontline Wireless’s very public smackdown of telco giant Verizon, a who’s-your-daddy type challenge to debate dueling wireless networking plans in public, in front of the FCC commissioners. While Big Ivan is sure to duck the contest, the confidence shown by Frontline’s willingness to swing hard may be a reflection of a growing base of support for the upstart’s plans to tweak the forthcoming 700 MHz spectrum auctions, which could lead to a Frontline win in the upcoming auction rules-making procedure.

To recap quickly (perhaps while you’re waiting for AT&T to activate your iPhone), Frontline is the brainchild of a bunch of big hitters in the telco and finance space, including former FCC chairman Reed Hundt and Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr, to basically create a new, national wireless broadband network that would prioritize access for first-responders while adhering to rules for an open, neutral framework.

Though Frontline’s late entrance into the 700 MHz sweepstakes made it a longshot at first, its savvy group of leaders now look to have at least a break-even chance of clearing the first hurdle of getting its ideas embedded in the auction rulemaking, a process the FCC is expected to complete by early August. How did Frontline get from good idea to Verizon-smacker in just a few months?

Through some smart tactical moves plus support from a few interesting, and a bit unexpected places. At the recent NXTcomm show in Chicago, an informal hallway-and-barstool poll of attending telco wonks said Frontline’s momentum is coming from a few places, including:

The support of FCC chairman Kevin Martin. Why is Martin, usually a lockstep big-telco supporter, so enamored of Frontline? One theory gaining ground at NXTcomm says that by backing an idea that might provide a competitive “third pipe” for broadband, Martin would have a more attractive record to offer voters in his expected future political endeavors. (No betting line yet on when Kevin will leave, but check back after the 700 MHz auction is over.)

The support of public safety. There wasn’t much public safety backing of Frontline in the beginning, a big strike since its plan in no small way hinges on the creation of a national first-responders net as a primary raison d’etre. Slowly, though, public safety types seem to be climbing aboard, with some cautious agency backing and support from infrastructure contractors like Northrop Grumman adding to Frontline’s arsenal. “If they get public safety on their side, they’re in,” said one D.C. insider. “If not, they’re out.”

The support of Google. The Google team initially spawned confusion with a separate 700 MHz plan for dynamically auctionable airwaves, but are now also solidly on board behind Frontline’s plan. And as Google adds to its lobbying roster in a Steinbrenner fashion, you can be assured that politicians of all stripes are paying attention, no doubt with their eyes on future campaign contributions. If the recent parade of presidential hopefuls through the Googleplex is any indication, anything Google backs is likely to at least get a listen.

Even if Frontline does succeed in getting its ideas put into the auction rulemaking, it’s still a long way to the finish line — since as even AT&T seems to hint lately, it might be willing to play by Frontline’s rules when it comes time to bid. But what’s extremely refreshing is to see a team with enough political savvy to call out Verizon for using paid-for punditry hit-men and instead offer to trade opinions directly with the big dogs, on the biggest public stage possible. As Hundt told RCR Wireless News:

Now that Verizon is hiring teams of surrogates to attack Frontline, we have to recognize Frontline is taken seriously by the most powerful telephone companies in the world… We invite Ivan Seidenberg, Verizon’s CEO, to meet in Washington any one of Frontline’s partners to debate the merits of Frontline’s plan to build a national public-safety network versus Verizon’s plan.

Game on!

9 Responses to “Frontline to Verizon: Let's Rumble!”

  1. I don’t think FCC chair Kevin Martin is really “enamored” of Frontline. What he’s said about it sounds more like lip service to me. Hard to be sure, of course.

    I covered the Reed Hundt speech at the Hot Chips conference at Stanford last week for my blog on CNET. It’s also hard to tell what Hundt is really thinking– is he really committed to open access, or is it just a way to oppose Verizon and AT&T (companies he seems to genuinely dislike), or is he just trying to make some money with Frontline?

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  2. Tom Coseven

    I would love to see Frontline or something similar win. In 2003/4 I worked on a venture funded proposal for a local interoperable solution. The grant and bid process was overwhelming, and Motorola’s relationship with local purchasing managers was very incestuous. I am convinced the only practical way to get a working national Public Safety network is a private driven partnership like Frontline.

    I think it is unfortunate that Frontline didn’t just stick to solving the Public Safety problem. The open access piece is targeting a completely different problem of creating a third pipe to the home. It was probably intended to appeal to Copps, who was predictably against the private ownership of a Public Safety network. Unfortunately, it meant Frontline has had to fight two very difficult battles on two different fronts. They might have been able to get support for open Internet access and open device connectivity, but I can’t see any way they will be able to get open roaming or a wholesale requirement after the UNE-P debacle.

    You are right that support has increased, but the opposition is much more vocal and better organized (for example the group of 16). If it is not too late already, Frontline would do well to drop some of the more objectionable “business model” requirements and refine their message around Public Safety. If frontline wins, nothing stops them from adding roaming and wholesale on their own network.

    I don’t share your confidence that Frontline can compete head-to-head with AT&T, Verizon and the MSO’s. Reed Hundt has said as much in a couple of interviews. I am not sure Google is planning to be more than moral support.

  3. Paul –

    “Frontline lite” is possible (creating an E block). The problem for Frontline is all the poison pills. The wholesale provision is against the law – you cannot wholesale public safety spectrum.

    With regard to interest in the proposal, I would say it is for public-private partnerships not necessarily Frontline’s scheme.

    Best, Chris

  4. Chris, I think you will find that Hill support for Frontline is growing… a source on the Senate Commerce Committe says there is “much interest” in the ideas. As for your link to Copps statement, that is a bit dated and it will be interesting to see how much Frontline’s lobbying has helped (according to ex parte filings they have been just about camped out on the eighth floor of the FCC). Believe Frontline is also addressing public safety concerns of being locked in, allowing public safety with its own networks (like New York) to opt out.

    As Tom notes earlier in the comments, it will be interesting to see if the Frontline proposal survives as a whole, or if the FCC only selects parts. And with K-P and Google in their corner, I don’t think the Frontline supporters will be lacking for cash to play in the bidding wars… either way, it will be interesting to watch!

  5. Frontline has very little support on the Hill and does not have the support of public safety. In fact, at a recent hearing in the Senate Commerce Cmte on 700 MHZ, Paul Cosgrave (NYC Department of IT)expressed his concerns with the proposal –

    Read Commissioner Copps’ skepticism about the proposal as well –

    Frontline is Nextwave again. However, the folks who will be hurt the most this time is Public Safety – not the wireless companies.

  6. Tom Coseven

    Frontline’s debate proposal was a Hail Mary pass, which Verizon has apparently blocked. There are only a few weeks left and Frontline hasn’t been able to line up any major endorsement from public safety organizations, which as you point out was the key to success. Keep in mind you are asking public safety to give up control of a big chunk of spectrum to make this work, and there are competing national networks proposals, which give public safety more control.

    The FCC is at best split with McDowell, Tate against and Copps, Adelstein leaning for. Martin is supposedly in the middle, but only if the poison pills (wholesale and open roaming) are stripped out.

    Without the poison pills and bid credits, Frontline would be unlikely to win the bid, so they have a lot more at stake than just winning the national public/private network argument.