Nextel Communications Inc., the Reston-based national wireless telephone provider, yesterday withdrew its $8.3 billion hostile takeover bid for NextWave Telecom Inc., a day after a federal appeals court severely undercut NextWave's claims to its lone valuable asset--the right to transmit telephone calls over a broad swath of the public airwaves.
A Nextel spokeswoman said the company remains interested in capturing NextWave's wireless licenses, which have been tied up in bankruptcy proceedings, though she declined to elaborate.
One way the company could gain the licenses is through a federal sale, without having to pay anything to NextWave. Federal Communications Commission officials said yesterday that they are mulling their options following the court decision and may soon revoke NextWave's licenses, auctioning them off to another company--perhaps Nextel--in the hopes of putting the airwaves to use.
NextWave officials, who hope to maintain rights to the licenses, said they will work to persuade the FCC not to pursue that course.
Yesterday's action marked the latest twist in a four-year wireless saga. NextWave originally agreed to pay the federal government $4.7 billion for the right to sell wireless phone service in markets that are home to 165 million people. But after handing over a $500 million down payment, the company never paid another dime. It landed in bankruptcy proceedings last year.
The FCC, which supervised the auction, argued that the licenses should revert back to the federal government, then be sold again to another company that would use them, thus injecting greater competition in the wireless arena. But a bankruptcy court in New York ruled the licenses were actually worth only $1 billion. If NextWave could come up with another $500 million, it could walk away with licenses.
The FCC appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Last month, the court ruled for the FCC. On Wednesday, it released its full opinion--a resounding victory for the FCC, saying that the federal agency has "exclusive jurisdiction" over wireless licenses, meaning it has the authority to reclaim them and sell them again.
FCC officials said they have not conclusively decided that's what they will do. They are studying whether NextWave should be entitled to keep the licenses by paying in full the original $4.7 billion price. One way or the other, the airwaves at issue will now be used by some company and the federal government will recoup funds, they said.
"This is a big win for American taxpayers," FCC Chairman William E. Kennard said in a written statement. "This decision will allow us to return to the business of getting valuable spectrum quickly into the hands of companies who can provide new wireless service."
NextWave said it plans to negotiate with the FCC to keep the licenses. The company last week gained $1.6 billion from a slate of investors led by Global Crossing Ltd. "We have the money to pay," said NextWave spokesman Michael Wack. "We will pay the entire amount."
Nextel had been pressing to buy NextWave by paying off its creditors, including the FCC. But with NextWave now seemingly reduced to a bankrupt entity that boasts no spectrum, Nextel pulled back.
The market apparently believes Nextel has greater chances of gaining the spectrum through another FCC sale: Nextel stock rose $8.43 3/4 a share to close at $105, a gain of nearly 9 percent.