BT and AT&T in tie-up to provide global service for mobile phones

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The Independent Online
BRITISH TELECOM and AT&T extended their Concert business services joint venture to mobile networks yesterday, unveiling a new alliance called Advance.

The move could bring forward the day when international travelers are able to use one mobile phone from anywhere in the world, but executives from both companies admitted that such a development remains years off.

Advance's more modest goal is to provide uniform mobile services for multi-national corporations around the world. It will feature a new global account services package, which includes worldwide contracts with standard rates and globalised billing systems.

"It's more than just another network," said Jordan Roderick, AT&T's executive vice-president of wireless technology and products. "We're trying to change the way the world buys wireless."

Investors welcomed the news amid hopes that Advance is a further step towards an eventual merger between the companies. Alternatively, some analysts believe that BT and AT&T could join their mobile operations, spinning off the business via a demerger or by issuing a separate tracking stock. BT stock erased an early 1 per cent decline to close up 33p at 922p in market leading volume of 31m shares.

"They are moving closer and closer together and eventually, I think, there could be a full merger," said John Tysoe, an analyst at WestLB Panmure, commenting on the BT/AT&T relationship. Other analysts, however, said regulatory hurdles would stand in the way of a link-up.

The moving together of BT and AT&T's mobile operations comes as Vodafone Airtouch and Bell Atlantic continue top- level talks in New York about merging their US networks. Airtouch, bought by Vodafone earlier this year, operates in around two dozen western states, while Bell Atlantic operates in a similar number of eastern states.

For Advance, on which BT and AT&T plan to spend several hundred million pounds over three years, the first stage will be to integrate voice networks in New York and London. The subsequent stage will be to provide high-speed data delivery on a uniformly accessible network, eventually throughout the UK and America.

Longer-term, Advance will expand beyond the US and UK but that will depend on the speed of systems integration among the different technologies deployed on the networks in the 17 countries where the phone giants already have 41 million mobile customers.

Executives from both companies downplayed the technical and operational management issues presented by Advance.