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AT&T gets feds' OK to buy Qualcomm spectrum

The $1.9 billion deal will deliver some much-needed spectrum to AT&T as it builds out its 4G LTE offerings and to stay competitive with chief rival Verizon Wireless.

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It won't be such a blue Christmas after all for AT&T, as a Qualcomm spectrum win follows Monday's lump of coal in the now-defunct T-Mobile deal. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

For AT&T, it's been a week of lose some, win some.

The wireless carrier said late Thursday that it now has the green light from the Federal Communications Commission to acquire 700MHz licenses from Qualcomm, in a deal valued at $1.9 billion. The companies expect to complete the transaction, which was originally announced a year ago, "in the coming days," AT&T said.

"This spectrum will help AT&T continue to deliver a world-class mobile broadband experience to our customers," said Bob Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulatory matters, said in a statement. "As spectrum is the lifeblood of the U.S. wireless industry, we are pleased that the FCC did not reduce the spectrum screen."

The licenses, covering spectrum in the Lower 700 MHz D and E Blocks, will be instrumental in helping AT&T build out its 4G services. Qualcomm had been using the spectrum for its Flo TV services.

Said the FCC in the conclusion of its report on the AT&T-Qualcomm deal:

We conclude ... that this transaction - with AT&T's plans to deploy supplemental downlink technology - holds the promise of meaningful transaction-specific public interest benefits that support the Commission approving the proposed transaction. In particular, we anticipate that the proposed transaction would facilitate the transition of underutilized unpaired 700 MHz spectrum towards mobile broadband use, thereby supporting our goal of expanding mobile broadband deployment throughout the country.

That was the good news of the week. The bad news for AT&T was the end of its blockbuster offer to buy T-Mobile USA.

On Monday, AT&T withdrew its $39 billion bid to acquire smaller carrier T-Mobile, a deal that over several months had run into increasing resistance and showed little likelihood of regulatory approval.

A central element of the effort to acquire T-Mobile from Deutsche Telekom was AT&T's desire to fold more spectrum into its wireless network as it expands its 4G LTE offerings. AT&T faces intense competition with Verizon Wireless and other carriers in the shift to higher-speed 4G services. Verizon is also hungry for more spectrum, and earlier this month said it will spend more than $3.6 billion to buy spectrum from cable giants including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cox Communications.

The Qualcomm deal includes unpaired Lower 700MHz D and E Block licenses that cover all of the United States with 6MHz or 12MHz of Lower 700MHz spectrum, along with five 6MHz Economic Area licenses in the Lower 700 MHz E Block that cover five metropolitan areas (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), accounting for more than 70 million people, according to the FCC.