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McCaw Cellular Is the Prize AT&T Has Been Striving For

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MCCAW Cellular Communications Inc., which has done more than any other company to put phones in Americans' cars and pockets, is a step closer to disappearing.

The United States Justice Department gave its blessing Friday to AT&T Corporation's $12.6 billion purchase of McCaw, announced last year. The agency cleared away antitrust concerns with a consent decree requiring AT&T to keep the cellular operation under separate management and give other long-distance carriers ``equal access'' to serve as relayers of wireless calls.

Though there are still two more legal and regulatory hurdles for the stock-swap buyout, the companies say they expect the merger to conclude by September. McCaw's quarterly earnings report this week may be the last chance for the Kirkland, Wash., company to post a profit (something the debt-laden company has yet to do) before uniting with AT&T.

McCaw rose from obscurity to industry prominence under a young, visionary leader. As a student at Stanford University, Craig McCaw ran a family cable-television business. More than a decade later, he began to focus on the nascent cellular industry as a major opportunity. ``Junk'' bond whiz Michael Milken helped finance the company's growth in the mid-1980s.

Chief Executive Officer McCaw talks up the notion of phone numbers being associated ``with a person and not a place.'' This ``seamless roaming,'' where phone numbers follow customers around the country, is coming closer to reality. McCaw has partnered with other companies to form a North American Cellular Network covering much of the US and Canada. The Baby Bells, which provide cellular service within their regional wire-phone domains, have a network called MobiLink.

McCaw and his team have ``been brilliant in using technology hyperbole to leverage their shares,'' says telecommunications analyst Herschel Shosteck, president of Herschel Shosteck Associates in Silver Spring, Md.

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