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US mobile hero Frontline Wireless goes titsup

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Frontline Wireless, the uber-startup that was poised to lay down a bid for a prime portion of the US wireless spectrum, now says it's "closed for business".

"Frontline is closed for business at this time," spokeswoman Mary Greczyn told us. "We have no further comment."

The news will come as a shock to anyone who's followed the brouhaha over the so-called 700-MHz spectrum, a slice of wireless bandwidth due to be auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) later this month.

Little more than a month ago, when Frontline officially joined the list of bidders for the spectrum, the company told us it was "bidding to win". But on January 4, bidders were required to fork over an "upfront payment" prior to the actual auction, and you have to wonder if Frontline was able to pay up.

The upfront payment for the 700-MHz "D-Block" - which will house a public safety network but might also be used for commercial purposes - was $128m, and the payment for all-commercial "C-Block" was $282m. Until today, Frontline was expected to bid for both.

Backed by a former FCC chairman and another Washington insider who once led the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) under President George H.W. Bush, Frontline was one of the main reasons - along with Google - that the FCC attached an "open access" requirement to the 700-MHz auctions.

With an open access requirement, the spectrum's winning bidder will have to open it up to any device and any application. At least in theory.

The rub is that the likes of Verizon and AT&T may play fast and loose with this requirement. For instance, AT&T recently told USA Today that its existing network is completely open - though it still makes no effort to get the word out to the masses with widespread marketing.

Meanwhile, Verizon says it will open its network by the end of the year. But how open it will really be?

With Frontline out of the running, hope for a truly open network now lies with Google. And putting all our eggs in Google's basket makes us feel a little, well, uneasy. ®

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