Carriers have been clamoring for more airwaves to meet demand, improve service and offer new services, such as video.
The Federal Communications Commission auctioned 242 licenses covering cities including Los Angeles, Cleveland and Houston.
Some of the licenses were limited to bids from small entrepreneurs, so larger carriers formed partnerships or other arrangements to gain access to those airwaves.
The Los Angeles market received the highest bid, $374.5 million, offered by Royal Street Communications LLC, a partner of Metro PCS Communications. That company was the single biggest spender, offering $387.4 million for six licenses.
Thirty-five bidders qualified to participate, including entities with ties to most of the national carriers.
Verizon Wireless, the No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier and a joint venture of Verizon Communications and the U.K.'s Vodafone Group, directly won 26 licenses with bids totaling $364.9 million.
Another entity with ties to Verizon, Vista PCS LLC, won another 37 licenses after bidding $332.4 million.
A company with ties to Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA unit, Cook Inlet, won 36 licenses with $255.5 million in bids.
Included in the FCC sale are licenses the agency received back from bankrupt NextWave Telecom as part of a settlement over the company's debt to the government for airwaves.