updated 12/8/2009 7:19:43 PM ET 2009-12-09T00:19:43

More than 600,000 businesses across the country are getting an early Christmas present.

About $1.1 billion will be paid to 634,000 merchants as part of the settlement of an antitrust lawsuit over Visa and MasterCard-branded debit cards. Payments were mailed out starting Tuesday and represent the final large-scale disbursement of the $3.4 billion settlement, which was negotiated in 2003 by New York-based law firm Constantine Cannon.

The payments accelerate the original schedule, which was set to end in 2012.

Visa and Mastercard were named in a class-action lawsuit that accused them of conspiring to fix prices and restrict trade. In the settlement, Visa originally agreed to make eight annual installments of $200 million through 2012, and Mastercard was to have paid $100 million annually through 2012.

Both card processors made deals earlier this year to prepay the remainder of what they owed, at a discount, by the end of 2009.

More than 90 percent of the merchants receiving checks are retailers, the law firm said in a statement. Others include educational institutions, charitable organizations and state government entities.

"This is a gratifying conclusion to many years of intense effort," said Robert L. Begleiter, Constantine Cannon partner.

The case was fought in the courts for seven years before the settlement was reached.

Retail leaders said the money is a welcome bonus at a time when holiday sales are expected to be lower as consumers restrain spending.

"The timing of these checks couldn't be better. They come during a difficult holiday season and will help retailers position themselves to participate in the economic recovery that lies ahead," said Tracy Mullin, President and CEO of the National Retail Federation.

The NRF was among the class representatives in the lawsuit.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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