In a setback for AT&T, the Federal Communications Commission announced Monday that it will look at the company's purchase of spectrum from Qualcomm in the context of the proposed merger with T-Mobile USA.
AT&T's proposal to buy $1.9 billion of Qualcomm spectrum, announced last year, predates the merger proposal and has been under FCC review for around 180 days, the informal time limit for such reviews.
The FCC said in a letter Monday to AT&T and Qualcomm that it has stopped its "shot clock" for the spectrum purchase and plans to examine the Qualcomm transaction side-by-side with the review of AT&T's mega-merger with T-Mobile, which could go well into next year.
In letter signed by FCC Wireless Bureau Chief Rick Kaplan, the commission raised concern about AT&T buying up airwaves all over the country.
"The commission's ongoing review has confirmed that the proposed transactions raise a number of related issues, including, but not limited to, questions regarding AT&T's aggregation of spectrum throughout the nation, particularly in overlapping areas," the letter said.
Kaplan said the reviews will proceed in a "coordinated manner," adding that they could become independent proceedings again at a later date.
Qualcomm responded to the news by urging the FCC to approve the acquisition immediately.
"The FCC should approve the pending AT&T-Qualcomm spectrum sale now because of the clear benefits to the public from the sale that stand on their own and are totally unrelated to the proposed AT&T-T-Mobile merger," Dean Brenner, vice president of government affairs for Qualcomm, said in a statement.
He argued that approval is in the public interest, noting that it will help ease the nation's "spectrum crunch."
"Approval now will also allow Qualcomm to invest in a new, spectrally efficient technology (supplemental downlink) and enable the first worldwide deployment to occur in the U.S., thereby fostering U.S. economic growth and job creation and enhancing U.S. global leadership in wireless technology," Brenner added.
The development is a win for public interest groups and some wireless companies that had lobbied the FCC to merge the reviews.
The FCC doled out another speed bump to AT&T in July when it stopped the merger shot clock and asked the company for additional data.
Update at 11:11 p.m.: AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said, "We believe the Qualcomm transaction stands on its own merits. We are pleased that the Commission has rejected calls to officially consolidate the two deals and has expressly preserved the ability for the Qualcomm application to be resolved in advance of the T-Mobile application. We remain confident that the FCC will approve the license transfers as consistent with the public interest."