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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department approved AT&T’s buyout of BellSouth Corp. on Wednesday, clearing a major hurdle for reuniting two modernized parts of the old Ma Bell phone monopoly that the government broke up in 1984. The decision leaves the Federal Communications Commission as the final hurdle for a $78.5 billion deal to create the nation’s biggest provider of phone, wireless and broadband Internet services. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the matter Thursday, though there’s been speculation the agency may hold off because of political pressures from Congress about the deal’s possible impact on market competition. If the deal wins final government approval, the merger would give San Antonio-based AT&T Inc. 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. “After thoroughly investigating AT&T’s proposed acquisition of BellSouth, the antitrust division determined that the proposed transaction is not likely to reduce competition substantially,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas O. Barnett, who heads the department’s antitrust division. The merger has raised concerns from consumer advocates and federal lawmakers who claim the government is well on its way to reconstituting the old Ma Bell monopoly, which was broken up in 1984 after a lengthy court battle. The House Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and other members of Congress had asked that the deal not be allowed to go through until details related to two previous telecommunications mergers are settled and other concerns are addressed. The outcome at the FCC was far from certain. Republican Chairman Kevin Martin circulated an order recommending approval of the merger last month and probably will receive support from fellow Republican commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. However, the two Democrats on the commission, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, are expected to ask that conditions be placed on the deal. That leaves Robert McDowell, the third Republican on the commission, who before joining the FCC lobbied in favor of competitors to companies like AT&T and BellSouth. McDowell has said he is proceeding as though he is recused from the case. The combination of San Antonio-based AT&T and Atlanta-based BellSouth would create a company of 300,000 employees with operations in 23 states. AT&T estimates that about 10,000 redundant jobs would be phased out over three years. The Justice Department decision came just seven months after AT&T announced its intentions on March 5 to buy BellSouth – a breakneck pace for a merger of its size and scope.

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