It's easy to overlook, but the fact remains that the American public owns all this spectrum, not Verizon, not AT&T, not Sprint. We lease it to deep-pocketed telecom companies so they can ostensibly serve the public interest.
According to the FCC, spectrum controlled by the top four wireless companies was worth at least $150 billion as of the end of 2010, the latest year for which statistics were available.
The fact that Dish's offer for Sprint topped Softbank's by more than $5 billion highlights how quickly the value of spectrum can grow, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that the future of communications lies in smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices.
"It's obvious why all these companies want spectrum," said Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Consumer Action. "The wire line is going the way of the dinosaur."
Edward A. Maldonado, a Miami lawyer specializing in telecom regulatory matters, said the FCC has a responsibility to ensure that the public is receiving its fair share of this wireless gold rush.
"The leases ought to be reviewed to make sure they're in the best interest of consumers," he said.
Most spectrum licenses are good for 10 to 15 years at a time, and typically are renewed. But could they be renegotiated?
Maldonado said that could be tricky. Much would depend on the terms of the highly complex agreements and how aggressively telecom companies might resist treating the public with greater fairness and generosity.
Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment when I asked how much elbow room the wireless leases may contain.
Of course, lawmakers could pass a bill requiring telecom companies to renegotiate terms in light of the changing marketplace, or at the very least to agree to a provision requiring higher payments as the value of leased spectrum rises.
But considering that the telecom industry is among the most influential in Washington — it spent about $55 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — that's not a likely scenario.
More likely is that the spectrum haves will grow wealthier and more powerful, and the have-nots will be increasingly marginalized. The actual owners of wireless spectrum will remain where we began: paying high fees for mediocre service.
In that sense, you could say, it doesn't really matter who owns Sprint.
The wireless deck is already stacked.