FCC Chairmen battle on the wireless Frontline

If nothing else, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is a master of the media spin move. With Tuesday’s well-executed leak of his plan for the 700 MHz auction rules (to USA Today and the Wall Street Journal), Martin won headlines for championing “open” networks — even as he kicked the open-networking ideas of Frontline Wireless to the curb.

Though Martin’s draft version of the 700 MHz rules haven’t yet been officially revealed, Frontline co-founder Reed Hundt has seen and heard enough of what Martin proposes, to call it a “dreadful plan” that favors incumbent telcos over new entrants, while paying lip service to the word “open.”

“What the chairman has presented is a Trojan Horse, filled not with Greeks but with Verizon lobbyists,” Hundt said in a phone conversation Tuesday morning. “What America needs is a new national network that really works. If you let Verizon buy it [the spectrum] and put it in the bottom left drawer, you’ve done nothing.”
As we mentioned before, Martin has made noises lately in praise of the idea of more-open networks; according to the stories Tuesday, Martin’s draft rules may incorporate some requirements for bidders in the auctions to keep the new wireless networks open to any devices.

Theoretically, such requirements could benefit players like Google and eBay’s Skype, who have been pushing for such rules to apply to all wireless networks. Frontline, for one, has been extremely vocal about how locking devices to a single service (like the iPhone) can hamper innovation and performance. But as often the case with telecom law, the devil is in the details, and in Martin’s plan Hundt sees horns.

“You can’t just say ‘Carterphone’ and ‘no locking of devices’ and claim you have an open network,” said Hundt, who didn’t have time to get into specifics. However, it was clear to Hundt that Martin’s definition of “open” contains enough loopholes to keep the incumbent telcos happy, which means a tougher road for new entrants. “Unless you have no blocking, no locking and no competing retail services, it’s not open,” Hundt said.

In a wait-and-see blog post Tuesday, Google reiterated its support for open networks, but a spokesman for the company said it couldn’t comment further on Martin’s draft since they haven’t yet seen it. And while the WSJ article claimed that Martin’s plan was the end of the line for Frontline, the upstart organization was busy scrambling Tuesday to change parts of its original plan to make it more digestable.

Though he has considerable sway, Martin is only one of five commissioners who must approve the rules, and there is no assurance that fellow GOP commissioner Robert McDowell will follow Martin’s lead blindly. So the game may not be over, but it sure looks like Frontline may be down to its last batter.

“Those who believe in America should hope that [Martin’s proposed draft] is not what the FCC adopts,” said Hundt.
(We are awaiting a reply from Verizon, and will update if and when we receive it. We did hear back from Verizon reps, who “respectfully decline to comment.”)