--AT&T buys NextWave Wireless to expand spectrum holdings
--AT&T seeks to open WCS airwaves to mobile internet
--Likely years before rollout can begin if regulators approve
AT&T Inc. (T) agreed to buy NextWave Wireless Inc. (WAVE) in a deal valued at $600 million, as the telecommunications company makes a long-term bet for additional wireless airwaves to help deal with the increased delivery of data to smartphones and other mobile devices.
As part of the purchase, AT&T will get licenses for a little-used band of spectrum called WCS, or Wireless Communications Service. The telecom giant is now hoping to get approval from the Federal Communications Commission to use the new airwaves for mobile internet service, the prime driver of its wireless business, and expand its next-generation network.
AT&T also filed for FCC approval of two smaller transfers of WCS spectrum from Comcast Corp. (CMCSA, CMCSK) and Horizon Wi-Com LLC, but didn't disclose further details. Comcast officials weren't immediately available to comment. The combined deals are seen as giving AT&T control over most of the WCS spectrum.
The need for spectrum stretches across all the wireless carriers, but AT&T's main strategy collapsed last year when a proposed $39 billion acquisition of Deutsche Telekom AG's (DTEGY, DTE.XE) T-Mobile USA fell apart amid regulatory concerns.
But any usage of WCS will take years, as AT&T noted that it won't be able to begin deploying the network over WCS for three and half years after the FCC approves the proposal. The company declined to comment on the timeline for the review and FCC officials weren't immediately available for comment. AT&T expects the NextWave acquisition to close next year.
AT&T and SiriusXM (SIRI) filed in June to get approval from the FCC to clear up the WCS band, which is close to the bands that Sirius uses to provide satellite radio. Since the spectrum licenses were auctioned in 1997, concerns were raised about WCS possibly causing interference for satellite radio listeners.
If the compromise is approved, AT&T plans to use the spectrum as additional capacity of its next-generation network using LTE, or Long Term Evolution, technology.
AT&T already owns 44% of the WCS spectrum, according to a spokeswoman. The licenses from NextWave cover 212 million people in the U.S., but the company wouldn't comment on how much it will boost its total holdings in the spectrum.
Wall Street analysts expect that AT&T's deal will give it control over most of the WCS airwaves.
"There is still much work to be done before WCS can be put to work," said Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche. "We would still put WCS in the "longer term" spectrum solution category."
As such, AT&T may still make other spectrum deals and is still expected to bid aggressively for airwaves that Verizon Wireless plans to sell with the expected approval of its $3.9 billion deal to buy spectrum from a group of cable companies that also includes Comcast.
The WCS deal is another sign that cable operators, once interested in entering the wireless business, are changing course by shedding their spectrum holdings.
Verizon Wireless is a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group PLC. (VOD, VOD.LN).
AT&T is paying $25 million with a contingency payment of up to another $25 million. It also reached a deal with NextWave debtholders for all outstanding debt to be bought by AT&T or retired by NextWave, bringing the total possible value of the deal to $600 million.
NextWave also owns a small piece of AWS, or Advanced Wireless Service, spectrum that AT&T will acquire. Its Canadian licenses and some other airwave licenses aren't included in the deal.
Write to Thomas Gryta at firstname.lastname@example.org
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