mr. john has it mostly right, and beat me to the post. (Payback! Well done.) Carl is talking about the great frequency land grab of the 80’s. Here’s how it worked.
When the FCC saw that cellular was actually going to get built, they handed out frequencies in the 800MHz band to pretty much anyone who wanted them. The people who wanted them were baby bells, who all got frequencies covering their entire territories, and entrepreneurial cellular pioneers, who collectively wanted and got frequencies covering major cities, where it was economical to build. I don’t remember whether there was any restriction on big companies acquiring spectrum, but it’s not important. All the big and smart companies were way too big and smart to get involved with a silly niche product like mobile telephony. Who knew?
As the pioneers built out their systems, others wanted to get in on the act for highways, suburbs, and eventually rural areas. The FCC decided that the only fair way to allocate the spectrum was by lot. But they also wanted the territories actually built.
So here’s what they did. They set up a lottery system, followed all the rules (publication in the Federal Register, etc.), but didn’t make a big deal of it. They didn’t exactly buy ads on Monday Nite Football saying “Hey, free spectrum = free money, get yours,” if you know what I’m saying. So the lottery players fell into mostly three groups: Actual cell-phone companies, scamsters who collected money from poor souls to acquire free spectrum, and a few canny individuals who caught on to the deal. The cell-phone companies built their systems, many of the scamsters got their just comeuppance, and a few of the canny ones did, in fact, make some pretty good money if they happened to get lucky and win a lottery for a good territory. Later (IIRC early 90’s) the FCC added conditions to require that a spectrum winner actually have plans to build the areas he won. And thus ended one of the more fun things the government has done.
The FCC now mostly auctions off spectrum, but sometimes you can get it on the cheap. There was a “pioneer’s preference” for PCS licensees if they had developed new transmission technology that ended up to be a big discount to the auction prices. The three (now 2) competitors in the Direct-to-Home TV business got their frequencies (and orbital slots) by, believe it or not, asking for it. Same with the satellite telephony providers.
Livin’ on Tums, Vitamin E and Rogaine