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AT&T Says Window for a Wireless Deal in Europe May Be Closing

AT&T Inc. said the moment to make an investment in Europe is almost over, with an increase in wireless-network upgrades reducing the company’s chances of getting in early on a sweeping industry transition.

The company still believes that the growth in mobile Internet use in the U.S. will be reproduced in other parts of the world, Chief Financial Officer John Stephens told investors today at a conference. Europe is the next big market for long-term evolution wireless technology, he said.

“But I think it’s important to note that things have changed,” Stephens said. “We’re now seeing the LTE story play out in Europe as providers invest in LTE. With that in mind, we see the window of opportunity there on owning assets maybe closing.”

The comments, which echo a similar statement last week by Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson, put a damper on speculation that AT&T may make a bid for Vodafone Group Plc, Europe’s largest telecommunications company. Without mentioning Vodafone specifically, AT&T told investors in Europe late last month it was willing to make a big acquisition if it was strategically important enough.

AT&T, responding to speculation about a possible takeover bid, told U.K. regulators in a January filing that it didn’t intend to bid for Newbury, England-based Vodafone. That means the Dallas-based company can’t make an offer for the European carrier until July under most circumstances, according to U.K. takeover rules.

Stephenson, the CEO, had told investors last week that more European operators are working to offer higher speeds.

‘Now Transpiring’

“Vodafone is investing now aggressively. You’re seeing LTE deployed broadly in England. You’re seeing it deployed in Germany now. And so, what we had always believed was going to transpire is now transpiring,” he said at an investor conference. “As you see these investments happening, you may kind of begin to think the window may be closing on perhaps owning wireless assets.”

AT&T’s comments may be intended to put pressure on European carriers to make a deal, said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics LLC in Dedham, Massachusetts.

“Yes, the window of opportunity is closing, but this is a potential bargaining chip to get people to the table,” Entner said. “You try to get them to understand that, ‘Either do this now, or it won’t happen.’”

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