The merger of local telephone giants SBC Communications and Ameritech is all but certain to gain approval from the Federal Communications Commission next week, sources inside the FCC told The Washington Post yesterday. FCC Chairman William E. Kennard yesterday added the merger to the agenda of a previously scheduled commission meeting next Friday, although a vote could come earlier in the week. If the merger wins approval, the combined company would control about a third of the nation's local telephone lines. As a condition of the merger, the new company would enter 30 major new markets around the country, including Washington, and begin offering competitive local telephone service.

Motorola, the biggest shareholder of Iridium, told creditors of the bankrupt satellite-telephone network that Craig McCaw may inject as much as $300 million into the company, Bloomberg News reported, quoting three Iridium creditors who requested anonymity. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates also may invest an undetermined amount in Iridium, the creditors said. Gates and McCaw, a billionaire who started one of the first cellular-phone companies, are backers of satellite-phone network Teledesic.

One of the government's lead attorneys in the Microsoft antitrust case, Stephen Houck of the New York state attorney general's office, has resigned. Houck's departure was widely expected. He was replaced as the office's antitrust chief last year after Eliot Spitzer (D) defeated incumbent Dennis Vacco (R) in an election for the attorney general post. Although Houck represented the 19 states that joined the Justice Department's suit against the software giant, he questioned only one witness during the 77-day trial. Other attorneys working for the 19 states will assume Houck's duties.

Ecuador's pleas for more time to renegotiate $6 billion in U.S.-guaranteed Brady bonds were rejected by creditors, who demanded immediate repayment of $1.4 billion of its debt. The country missed a $44.5 million interest payment Thursday.

The United States wants out of a controversial lumber-import agreement with Canada when it expires in 2001 in a decision that could increase tensions between the trading partners, a U.S. trade official told Ottawa in a letter made public yesterday. But another U.S. trade official said Washington may be willing to negotiate a new trade pact that would address American concerns about Canadian timber-pricing and other allegedly anti-competitive policies.

The International Monetary Fund underestimates the amount of money it has available to make loans by as much as $19 billion, according to a report from the General Accounting Office. The investigative arm of Congress found that the IMF hadn't used any of the money held in its "working balance reserve," now stocked with $19 billion, for 20 years. The IMF defended its accounting. "It's our job to be conservative," said Thomas Dawson, an IMF spokesman. "No bank has ever gone broke for being too conservative, and this fund won't either."

Hewlett-Packard warned it will report quarterly sales at the low end of Wall Street projections after an earthquake last month in Taiwan slowed production of parts that power its computers and other machines. Chief executive Carleton Fiorina said the company's revenue will grow about 10 percent in the fiscal fourth quarter, which ends Oct. 30. Wall Street had expected sales growth ranging from 10 percent to 13 percent.

MCI WorldCom completed its acquisition of SkyTel Communications, the second-largest U.S. paging company, for $1.63 billion in stock and assumed debt. MCI WorldCom exchanged 0.2566 shares of its stock for each SkyTel share, or $18.44 a share based on MCI WorldCom's closing price Thursday. MCI WorldCom also assumed about $514.4 million in SkyTel debt, SkyTel said. MCI WorldCom will gain 1.6 million customers and a paging network to offer e-mail and other data services.

York International, the world's largest industrial-refrigeration company, said it will cut 1,200 jobs and close three European plants, and warned it will miss third-quarter earnings estimates because of weaker sales in Latin America and the integration of an acquisition.

Long-Term Capital Management may soon close down, as the banks that recapitalized it have gotten most of their money back, said William McDonough, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. McDonough led the bailout of the hedge fund by 14 banks when it lost about $4 billion during last year's rout in global financial markets.

Major chemical companies plan to suspend operations on New Year's Eve as a precaution against toxic accidents and production foul-ups caused by year 2000 computer troubles. Rhone-Poulenc, DuPont, Monsanto and Ashland Chemical said they will idle some North American plant operations on the weekend when the calendar turns from 1999 to 2000. The decision underscores the special attention being paid to Y2K, since many chemical companies normally run at least some of their plants around the clock every day of the year.

The U.S. Customs Service will buy $10.5 million worth of cargo inspection machines from Science Applications International of San Diego. Under the contract, the company will supply 11 mobile gamma ray devices that will enable customs inspectors to see through densely packed cargo containers.

LOCAL BUSINESS

Barry Ariko, deputy general manager of the alliance between America Online and Sun Microsystems, became the latest longtime Netscape employee to say he would leave his job at AOL. Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen stepped down as AOL's chief technology officer last month.

Marriott International said it is raising its goal for the number of new hotels it plans to open. The Bethesda-based franchiser and manager of hotel chains, including Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Courtyard, has previously said it planned to add 150,000 hotel rooms from last year through 2002. Marriott's chief financial officer, Arne Sorenson, said the company will announce a new, higher goal through 2003 at an analysts' meeting next month.