Frontline to Verizon: Let's Rumble!

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!