AT&T, BellSouth merger gets US government backing

The US Justice Department's top antitrust official defended the agency's unconditional approval of AT&T's $82 billion buyout of BellSouth as 'pretty straightforward' despite criticism from Democratic regulators and lawmakers, an Associated Press report said.

The buyout would further reunite parts of the old Ma Bell phone monopoly, broken up by the government in 1984, and create the largest US provider of telephone, wireless and broadband Internet services, the report said.

'We're living a very different world than we were in the 1980s,' Assistant Attorney General Thomas O. Barnett was quoted as saying. 'The mere size of a company in general doesn't tell you whether a merger is going to harm consumer welfare.'

The Federal Communications Commission, the final regulatory hurdle for the deal to be approved, has delayed a final vote three times.

Two Democrats on the FCC, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, have accused the Justice Department of falling down on the job, the report said.

Barnett said the agency spent months reviewing documents and interviewing customers and competitors before concluding that the deal probably would save customers money.

Once that conclusion was reached, 'it's a pretty sTRAIghtforward deal for us,' he said.

If the deal wins final government approval, the merger would give San Antonio-based AT&T total control over the nation's largest cellular provider, Cingular Wireless, a joint venture of the two phone companies that serves 57.3 million customers.

Consumer rights groups have criticized the deal as putting too much of the telecommunications infrastructure under the control of one company, the report said.

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