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The race for spectrum heats up. Again

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AT&T’s efforts to accrue LTE-friendly spectrum got a big boost Tuesday as the Federal Communications Commission granted approval for the carrier to acquire Wireless Communications Services (WCS) airwaves owned by Comcast and three other companies. The spectrum covers a whopping 82 percent of the population throughout the 48 contiguous states, as my colleague Kevin Fitchard reports, paving the way for AT&T to build a fat nationwide LTE pipe to match Verizon Wireless’s.

The FCC’s nod comes on the heels of Sprint’s announcement that will it acquire Clearwire for $2.2 billion, giving the nation’s third-largest carrier an additional 130 MHz of spectrum. While Sprint’s spectrum holdings still lag behind its two larger counterparts, the carrier appears to have lengthened its spectrum lead over the rest of the field.

So one of the biggest questions in the wake of AT&T’s green light is what becomes of Dish Network. Dish won FCC approval this week to use its spectrum for a terrestrial mobile network, giving it an opportunity to compete with the entrenched carriers. But that spectrum isn’t enough to build out a full-blown nationwide network — Dish will have to find a partner or buy more of the invaluable airwaves at auction. I don’t think Dish can afford to wait around for the next FCC auction, though, and a partnership with T-Mobile makes a lot of sense.