AT&T Wireless put itself up for sale Thursday, confirming it has received numerous takeover bids which it plans to entertain.
The nation's third-largest cell phone operator did not disclose the names of any bidders, which according to sources at both AT&T Wireless and its various suitors include Cingular Wireless, NTT Docomo of Japan, Vodafone of Britain and Nextel Communications.
Official bids are said to have been received from Cingular and NTT Docomo, which already owns a 17 percent stake in AT&T Wireless, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Based on the company's share price, which has surged more than 35 percent to $10.99 in less than two weeks amid takeover speculation, AT&T Wireless has a market value of nearly $30 billion.
Industry observers expect that even more bidders may be tempted by AT&T Wireless' 21.9 million subscribers, which includes a sizable base of corporate clients who tend to use more services and spend more money.
The company said Merrill Lynch & Co. and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz have been retained as advisors to the board of directors.
In a statement, the company said, "significant interest from a number of other companies, as well as global and domestic industry dynamics, led to the Board's decision" to explore a buyout.
However, the statement noted, "there can be no assurance that any transaction will occur."
With all the takeover speculation, AT&T Wireless also moved up the release of its fourth-quarter results by a week, reporting a net loss of $84 million, 3 cents per share.
The latest results compare with a loss of $131 million, or 5 cents per share, in the final three months of 2002, not including a preferred stock expense of $5 million.
However, Wall Street had expected the company to break even for the quarter, according to a survey of industry analysts by Thomson First Call.
Still, the poor show was not entirely a surprise given the numerous stumbles the company suffered during the quarter. Most severe among those troubles were two technological glitches.
First, a problem with an upgrade in sales system software prevented the activation of tens of thousands of new customers in November.
Software was also to blame for AT&T Wireless' troubles when new federal rules went into effect allowing cell phone users to switch companies without losing their phone numbers. The software was unable to process requests to hand over lost customers or activate customers lured away from rivals.
"We did hit some operational rough spots in the fourth quarter, but the good news is that those issues are largely behind us. And we understand the challenges, such as churn, that we must continue to focus on this year," John D. Zeglis, AT&T Wireless chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. "Like any company in transition, we've had our ups and downs. But these have never interrupted our consistent growth on all the metrics that count in our industry."
Fourth-quarter revenue totaled $3.90 billion, up 4.4 percent from $3.74 billion in the year-earlier period.
In light of Thursday's announcement, AT&T Wireless postponed its annual analyst meeting, which was scheduled for January 27 in New York. The company said the analyst meeting will be rescheduled "at a later date as appropriate."
A merger with Cingular, jointly owned by SBC Communications and BellSouth, would vault the combined company into the top slot in terms of U.S. market share, while an agreement with Nextel would create a competitor close in size to No. 1 Verizon.
A deal with either would also slim the field of national wireless carriers from six to five, possibly easing the fierce competition sparked by a new federal rule that lets customers switch carriers without losing their phone numbers.
Atlanta-based Cingular is currently the nation's second-largest wireless carrier with 23.4 million voice and data customers. Verizon, based in Bedminster, N.J., has 36.0 million subscribers, while AT&T Wireless is No. 3 with 21.9 million. All of those tallies were calculated as of the end of September.