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Vodafone confirms it may bid to purchase AT&T Wireless

LONDON -- Vodafone Group PLC confirmed yesterday it may bid to acquire AT&T Wireless Services Inc., a move that would require the British cellphone company to sell its 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless.

AT&T Wireless, the third-biggest cellular provider in the United States, put itself up for sale last month, saying it had received numerous inquiries about whether it was ready to entertain offers.

The company declined at that time to disclose the names of any potential bidders, but sources at both AT&T Wireless and its suitors have said the interested parties include Vodafone, Cingular Wireless, NTT DoCoMo of Japan and Nextel Communications.

Vodafone is only the second of those would-be buyers to confirm its interest publicly. NTT DoCoMo, which already owns 16 percent of AT&T Wireless and competes directly with Vodafone in many foreign markets, confirmed its interest two weeks ago.

Cingular, said to be the most eager bidder and the only one that has submitted a formal offer, has declined to comment on the reports.

AT&T Wireless has set a Friday deadline for bids.

Vodafone made no mention of its ownership in its press release yesterday, which said the company is "exploring whether a potential transaction with AT&T Wireless is in the interests of its shareholders."

Two weeks ago, Verizon Communications chief executive Ivan Seidenberg said his company would be pleased to assume full ownership of Verizon Wireless should Vodafone decide to pursue AT&T Wireless.

Although Verizon Wireless is the nation's number one cellular company with 37.5 million subscribers, Vodafone has been discontent with its lack of control in a market as significant as the United States.

AT&T Wireless, based in Redmond, Wash., has more than 22 million subscribers, including a sizable base of corporate clients who tend to use more services and spend more money.

Cingular Wireless, which is jointly owned by the US regional phone companies SBC Communications and BellSouth and is the second-biggest US wireless company, has reportedly offered about $30 billion, or $11 a share, in cash to AT&T Wireless.

In New York Stock Exchange trading, AT&T Wireless shares rose 20 cents to $11.30.

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