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Wednesday, September 07, 2011, 09:09 pm PT (12:09 am ET)

Judge urges AT&T, DoJ to discuss settlement on T-Mobile deal Sept. 21

The federal judge in charge of the Justice Department's case against the AT&T and T-Mobile merger has ordered the federal agency and AT&T to come to a Sept. 21 hearing prepared to discuss a settlement option.

Judge Ellen Huvelle also signed an order earlier this week requiring the Justice Department, AT&T and T-Mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom to file a joint plan on scheduling and managing the case by Sept. 16, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.

The Justice Department filed its antitrust lawsuit to block the proposed acquisition on Aug. 31. The suit apparently caught AT&T executives by surprise, as they had expected to have more time to present their case.

The agency's case has been taken as a major blow to AT&T and T-Mobile's chances of finalizing the deal. But, Justice Department acting assistant attorney general Sharis Pozen has said "our door is open," despite having serious concerns.

A settlement would come as a surprise to some, though, because of the decisiveness with which the agency filed its lawsuit. “It is true that you can always settle a case, but the Justice Department doesn’t use litigation as a settlement tactic,” said Harold Feld, the legal director of a consumer group opposing the deal, last week.

Rival carrier Sprint has filed its own lawsuit in opposition of the deal. As the third-largest wireless carrier in the U.S., the company alleges it would face an unfair duopoly of AT&T and Verizon if the former were allowed to purchase fourth-place T-Mobile.

In its suit, Sprint cites Apple's iPhone as a "classic example" of the advantage that AT&T and Verizon enjoy as the nation's two largest wireless carriers. According to a court filing, an exclusive arrangement for AT&T and a "time-to-market advantage" for Verizon have left Sprint competing "without access to the iPhone for nearly five years." That could change this fall, however, as the company will reportedly begin selling the iPhone 5 alongside its larger rivals.