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Vodafone makes rival bid for AirTouch

In a bid to stall merger talks between Bell Atlantic and AirTouch Communications, Britain's Vodafone Group offers more than $45 billion for AirTouch.

The battle to control cellular airwaves just cranked a notch higher.

Wireless firm AirTouch Communications confirmed today that Britain's Vodafone Group had made a rival bid to purchase the company, in an apparent attempt to derail merger talks between AirTouch and Bell Atlantic.

The San Francisco-based wireless firm would not comment further, other than to say it would review the offer. Reports have characterized the Vodafone bid as more than $45 billion, the estimated value of Bell Atlantic's initial merger offer, however.

Late Sunday, Bell Atlantic and AirTouch, the largest independent wireless phone company, confirmed they are in merger talks.

Vodafone's cellular network spans the United Kingdom and alliances with operators reach France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Greece. The company also has a foothold in Australia and Hong Kong. Combined with AirTouch, it would extend into Japan, South Korea, and India, according to media reports.

Bell Atlantic and AirTouch, on the other hand, would complement each other's domestic reach.

Shares of Bell Atlantic slipped yesterday on the merger talk, falling 3.82 percent, or 2.06 points, to 51.94. The stock has traded as high as 61.19 and as low as 40.44 during the past 52 weeks.

AirTouch dropped 5.78 percent, or 4.19 points, to 68.25, and has hit a high of 75 and a low of 40.31in the last 52 weeks.

Vodafone climbed higher yesterday, rising 8.38 percent, or 13.5 points, to 174.63. The stock has traded as high as 176.5 and as low as 68.31 during the past 52 weeks.

Bell Atlantic's merger with AirTouch might be slightly easier because the two companies are already in a major joint venture. Still, Bell Atlantic has yet to win federal regulatory approval for its merger with GTE and will have to face similar hurdles before acquiring AirTouch.

AirTouch and Vodafone also have investments in common, however. The two share ownership interests in a Swedish carrier and a new Egyptian start-up firm.

All three companies declined to comment on rival bid development.

CNET's John Borland contributed to this report.