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It's official: AT&T Wireless is for sale

The No. 3 U.S. cell phone service provider says it has received "significant interest from a number of companies."

AT&T Wireless on Thursday confirmed widespread speculation that it's for sale.

Chief Executive John Zeglis told financial analysts that the nation's third largest provider of cell phone service has received "significant interest from a number of companies." The carrier said in an earlier statement that its board of directors hired investment firm Merrill Lynch and the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to help review its options.

"AT&T Wireless has decided to explore strategic alternatives," Zeglis said Thursday during a conference call with financial analysts. "There has been so much interest. It's a flattering affirmation of the growth pattern we're on."

He declined to state a timetable for completing a review of the bids. "I can't speculate whether we will make any strategic changes."

The company also postponed a meeting with analysts scheduled for Jan. 27 while it examines its alternatives.

Various recent news reports in recent days have identified potential suitors as U.S. companies Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications; Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo; and British giant Vodafone, which is a part owner of Verizon Wireless.

Analysts believe an AT&T Wireless sale to another U.S. carrier would signal the beginning of a long-awaited consolidation of the hypercompetitive cell phone market in the United States.