UPDATE 1-Wireless mergers to invite scrutiny, says U.S. antitrust chief-NYT

Thu Jan 30, 2014 6:58pm EST

Jan 30 (Reuters) - It would be difficult for the U.S. Justice Department to approve a merger between any of the top four U.S. wireless phone companies, said William Baer, assistant attorney general for the antitrust division, the New York Times reported on Thursday.

Baer's comments came amid speculation that T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp might announce a deal in coming months.

He said any deal would face intense scrutiny because consumers had enjoyed "much more favorable competitive conditions" since the division blocked a proposed merger between AT&T Inc and T-Mobile in 2011, the Times reported. ()

"It's going to be hard for someone to make a persuasive case that reducing four firms to three is actually going to improve competition for the benefit of American consumers," he told the newspaper, without referring to any specific deal.

Baer, who is speaking on Thursday evening at a meeting of the New York State Bar Association, was expected to tell antitrust lawyers there that he would prefer to see companies drop any inclination to play hardball with regulators and offer meaningful divestitures earlier, rather than later, in order to win quick approval for their deals.

"Often ... the strategy seems to be to eliminate a big rival while proposing a remedy that allows for a small rival or new entrant with limited resources to nip at the heels of the few remaining big players," Baer said in remarks issued before the speech.

"We will not waste our time with plainly inadequate settlement offers," said Baer.

Baer also noted in his speech, which discussed at length efforts to fight bid-rigging, that the Washington office of the Justice Department was adding prosecutors to fight cartels.

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