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High court hears wireless spectrum case

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on whether the government can repossess wireless spectrum licenses from NextWave.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday in a case that could determine the future of wireless airwave licenses.

The case, FCC v. NextWave, has tied up part of the wireless spectrum for years while courts have tried to decide whether the agency had the right to re-auction the licenses. Wireless carriers say releasing the licenses could relieve a shortage of the airways used to offer cell phone and high-speed wireless Internet service.

At stake is both the future of the licenses and whether bankruptcy laws prevail over the Federal Communications Commission's authority to handle the licenses.

The saga began when NextWave committed to pay the FCC about $4.7 billion for the premium airwave spectrum in 1996 but then went bankrupt in 1998 after managing to pay just $500 million.

The FCC re-auctioned the licenses last year to several bidders for nearly $16 billion. However, the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the action violated bankruptcy law, placing the licenses in limbo.

The FCC appealed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but meanwhile, the licenses have been tied up pending a decision.

The case is being closely watched by AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint, which have paid for the licenses. Some of the companies have filed separate suits to recover their money from the FCC.