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T-Mobile just won the keys to supercharging its network

T-Mobile, Dish Network and Comcast are the three big winners of the FCC's latest auction for spectrum, which is the critical ingredient for any wireless network.

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The FCC announced the results of its incentive wireless spectrum auction, one of the most complicated auctions the agency has run to date.

James Martin/CNET

T-Mobile, Dish Network and cable giant Comcast emerged as the big winners in the government's wireless spectrum auction.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday announced the winners of its $19.8 billion spectrum auction. T-Mobile spent $8 billion and won the biggest number of licenses, according to the FCC. Dish Network came in second, committing $6.2 billion, and Comcast spent $1.7 billion. Verizon, which had committed ahead of time to participating in the auction, did not bid, the FCC said.

The spectrum, a range of radio frequencies used to transmit sound, data and video to TVs or phones, is critical for any company looking to augment or build out their wireless service. This auction sold spectrum in the 600 megahertz band, a low-frequency type that is optimal for covering great distances and giving you better indoor coverage. T-Mobile has already vowed to put this spectrum to use this year.

"This spectrum sets us up to bring the Un-carrier -- and REAL competition -- to wireless customers everywhere, many of whom have never had real choices in wireless," T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in a blog post. "If the Duopoly (AT&T and Verizon) thought things were rough before -- well, just wait!"

The broadcast incentive spectrum auction has been one of the agency's most complex and ambitious auctions to date. The auction, which began last year, was conducted over two major stages. A so-called backwards auction took place last year in which TV broadcasters agreed to give up wireless spectrum that they were no longer using. The government later sold the spectrum in a so-called forward auction to wireless providers.

The FCC said it will pay TV broadcasters a total of $10.5 billion for 84MHz of wireless spectrum.

Spectrum is considered the "lifeblood of the wireless industry" because those radio airwaves are necessary to deliver data and other mobile services. But it's a limited resource and controlled, for the most part, by the US government.

AT&T and Verizon, which were the big winners in the last auction of low-band spectrum in 2008, have built the foundation of their 4G LTE networks on low-band 700MHz spectrum, another sliver of spectrum that was once used to broadcast TV.

T-Mobile, the nation's third-largest wireless provider, has been trying to assemble a similar set of assets for its own network. But for the most part, T-Mobile lacks significant amounts of low-band spectrum. The company believes it's competitive with this new swath of spectrum.

Comcast, meanwhile, will likely use the spectrum to bulk up a wireless service it's scheduled to launch later this year. Its Xfinity Mobile service will initially run on Verizon's wireless network. The company confirmed the results in a statement but wouldn't comment further.

Dish Network has been hoarding spectrum for years, but hasn't built out a wireless network yet. A company spokesman declined to comment.

A total of 62 bidders participated in the FCC's auction.

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