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A Low-Key Migration

Few Immediate Changes Expected as AT&T, Cingular Merge

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2004; Page E01

Change is coming for AT&T Wireless's 21.7 million customers -- although they wouldn't know it from watching the company's commercials or shopping in its stores.

The cell phone provider is expected to complete its $41 billion merger with Cingular Wireless within weeks. Approval from the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission is expected, although potentially with some strings attached.

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If all goes as planned by the companies, Cingular will eclipse Verizon Wireless as the nation's biggest wireless company, with 46.7 million customers. It will start changing signs, displays, and computer systems in the more than 1,000 retail stores owned by AT&T Wireless Services Inc.

Within months of regulators' approval, AT&T Wireless customers can expect the screen on their phones to display the Cingular name, company executives said, and their bills will start arriving in Cingular envelopes.

Although some analysts warn that any merger this big can run into unexpected problems, the companies said the process will be painless for consumers. They said existing contracts will stay in effect, and customers won't have to buy new phones.

Yet many customers may not realize they are about to be handed off to a different brand.

AT&T Wireless continues to take out full-page advertisements in newspapers and air primetime commercials on television, none of them mentioning the expected sale to Atlanta-based Cingular. The company also has continued to introduce services, phones and plans geared toward locking customers into contracts that would extend well into the merger.

"This is the first time I've heard of it," said Pat Keeton, an administrative assistant who lives in Takoma Park, when asked about the merger after browsing an AT&T Wireless store in downtown Washington this week. "They don't have anything about that in the store."

That's because the companies are legally prohibited from discussing their pending merger, or advertising it, until it's approved by regulators, said Peter Rowe, an AT&T Wireless spokesman.

At the FCC, Chairman Michael K. Powell and Commissioner Kevin J. Martin already have voted to approve the deal, according to sources close to the agency who declined to be identified because of the ongoing deliberations. Approval requires three votes from the five-member commission. The chairman has recommended that Cingular be required to divest stores and customers in about 10 markets where the combined companies would dominate the cellular business, some of them in rural areas, the sources said. Most customers would not be affected.

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