Cable TV entrepreneur John C. Malone, who has become a billionaire by picking hot communications ventures, yesterday picked Teligent Inc., the Northern Virginia company that uses radio waves to provide telephone and data services to businesses.

Malone's Liberty Media Group agreed to acquire Associated Group Inc., a Pittsburgh holding company that is Teligent's largest stockholder, with 41 percent of the stock.

Liberty and Associated said the complex stock-swap transaction will be worth about $3 billion to Associated shareholders. The large blocks of AT&T Corp. and Liberty stock owned by Associated will be passed on to shareholders, who will also get 11.5 million new shares of Liberty Media worth about $760 million at current prices.

Associated owns other investments, but sources familiar with the transaction said Malone's goal is to acquire the company's stake in Teligent, a three-year-old Vienna company founded by former AT&T executive Alex J. Mandl.

Mandl said yesterday in a phone interview that Liberty Media's investment will not give Malone control of Teligent. "We get a new investor, an important investor," he said. "Having Liberty Media as a significant investor is terrific."

He said the acquisition will not affect Teligent's plan to offer its services in 40 cities before the end of the year. Teligent is seeking to lure business customers from local phone companies by giving them direct wireless connections to long-distance service and data networks and the Internet.

The announcement boosted Teligent's stock by $5.43 3/4 to close at $54.56 1/4 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. It had little effect on the shares of Liberty Media, which closed down 18 3/4 cents to $66.25 on the New York Stock Exchange. Associated's Class A shares closed down $2.75 at $62.25 on Nasdaq, but the company's Class B shares -- which will be treated equally in the merger but have long sold for a slightly higher price -- rose 25 cents to close at $61.75.

Malone, who is chairman of Liberty Media and has major holdings in both Liberty and AT&T, is known for allowing companies in which he invests to operate autonomously, Mandl noted. But "having them as partners will give additional impetus for growing the business, partnering and leveraging the full benefits of the resources we have," he added.

Liberty Media has evolved into a major cable program supplier, owning stakes in companies including Washington's Black Entertainment Television Group and Bethesda's Discovery Communications Inc.

Bankrolled with more than $5 billion in cash raised by selling some of Liberty's previous investments to AT&T, Malone recently has been on an acquisition spree that has made him the telecommunications equivalent of Warren Buffett -- a billionaire investor whose stock picks are closely watched.

Liberty has announced $2 billion in purchases in the past few months, including stakes in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.; a large holding in General Instrument Corp., maker of cable TV converter boxes; and investments in smaller companies developing viewer-participation television, Internet music businesses and other nascent technologies.

Explaining his media-buying strategy at a recent investor conference, Malone said, "There's no need to place all your money on one horse when you can sort of bet the whole category. Liberty intends to do that."

Brad Williams, an analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. in Baltimore, said the Teligent acquisition is "not the most logical fit to leap off the top of the head, but when you look at all the other investments, it fits within the media and communications umbrella."

He said the transaction was motivated by the desire of Associated Group's principal shareholders to cash in their investment without paying federal income taxes on investments whose value has grown from less than $100 million to nearly $3 billion.

Malone is respected both for his skill at putting together profitable deals and also for making opportunistic investments, said Jeffrey Kagan, a telecommunications analyst and author based in Atlanta.

Malone has invested in other telephone ventures -- including Sprint Corp.'s wireless service -- but Kagan said his interest recently has been in "broad-band" technologies that can carry cable, telephone calls and Internet traffic.

Liberty Media can use its cable connections to deliver those services to consumers, but it needs a company such as Teligent to reach businesses, Kagan explained. "When you put those two pieces together you've got a company that is highly diversified in the telecommunications service provider field," he said.

In Profile

Liberty Media Group has agreed to buy Associated Group, which owns a 41 percent stake in Teligent, which is based in Northern Virginia.

Teligent

Business: Offers local telephone service, high-speed Internet access and other telecommunications services over its networks; resells long-distance phone service.

Based: Vienna

Origins: Company founders Rajendra Singh and Myles Berkman acquired several wireless licenses from the FCC in the early 1990s -- before the agency began license auctions -- and formed Associated Communications; company changed its name to Teligent in 1997.

Employees: 1,820

Chairman and chief executive: Alex J. Mandl

1998 sales: $960,000

1998 net loss: $281.5 million

Yesterday's closing stock price: $54.56 1/4, up $5.43 3/4

Ticker: TGNT on the Nasdaq Stock Market

Web address: www.teligentcorp.com

SOURCES: Hoover's, Bloomberg News