The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that NextWave Telecom will keep wireless licenses worth billions of dollars despite its failure to meet payment obligations.

NextWave is free to develop wireless licenses or sell them to the highest bidder.

The Federal Communications Commission seized the licenses from NextWave and sold them for more than $16 billion in January 2001. When NextWave won the licenses in 1996, it agreed to pay $4.7 billion. The company was unable to pay the full amount and filed for bankruptcy in 1998. The FCC then seized the licenses.

The company successfully sued in federal appeals court for return of the licenses. The FCC then took the six-year-old dispute to the Supreme Court. The court supported NextWave's case in an 8-1 vote.

The big wireless carriers say the value of the licenses has declined since the 2001 auction in the wake of a U.S. economic downturn and resulting collapse of the telecom industry.