Meet the spectrum bosses

If AT&T-Mo’s failure taught us anything it’s that if the big U.S. operators are going to grow they can’t do it by acquiring each other. Instead they’re going to have to buy up what unused spectrum is left on the market to stockpile bandwidth for their future mobile broadband networks.

While AT&T(s T) was distracted trying to buy T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless (s vz)(s vod) quietly negotiated deals with the cable providers to buy up their unused SpectrumCo 4G licenses. The Yankee Group has prepared a nifty graphic that details the current spectrum holdings of the big boys in the top 10 markets as well as what Verizon could gain by buying up the cable operators licenses:

The operator with the biggest spectrum chest isn’t Verizon or AT&T, but Clearwire, (s clwr) which has spent several years consolidating 2.5 GHz licenses across the country. It doesn’t have a 150 MHz in every market, but it has those quantities in the largest cities where they’re the most useful. With more spectrum, Clearwire can launch much higher-capacity networks without building more towers.

What’s more, Clearwire’s frequencies are all earmarked for 4G, while most of AT&T and Verizon’s spectrum is in the cellular (850 MHz) and PCS (1900 MHz bands), which are tied up in their CDMA, GSM and HSPA+ networks. It’s the 700 MHz and AWS (1700/2100 MHz) column you should pay close attention to because therein lies both operators’ future 4G growth.

Here Verizon has the clear advantage with an average of 57.2 MHz in the top 10 cities – all of which it can devote to LTE. AT&T has less than 40 MHz in those same markets, which is a good indication why AT&T wanted T-Mobile’s AWS spectrum so desperately. Plus, if Verizon succeeds in buying SpecrtumCo and Cox’s (s cox) licenses it will add considerably to its lead over AT&T.

Some explanation of the chart is required here. SpectrumCo and Cox spectrum holdings don’t overlap, so combined they own 20 MHz in the top 10 markets, not 20 MHz each. Still, Verizon would be able to increase its 4G reserves to over 75 MHz if the deals go through, something that must make AT&T and any other operator very nervous. AT&T just closed its own deal to buy up Qualcomm’s (s qcom) leftover 700 MHz FLO TV spectrum, but that gain is small compared to the size of Verizon’s potential windfall.