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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2020, file photo T-Mobile chief executive John Legere speaks to reporters as he leaves the courthouse in New York. A federal judge has removed a major obstacle to T-Mobile's $26.5 billion takeover of Sprint, as he rejected claims by a group of states that the deal would mean less competition and higher phone bills. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge has cleared a path to T-Mobile’s $26.5 billion takeover of Sprint, as he rejected claims by more than a dozen states that the deal would mean less competition and higher phone bills.

Though the deal still needs a few more approvals, T-Mobile expects to close it as early as April 1.

Once that happens, the number of major U.S. wireless companies would shrink from four to three. T-Mobile said the deal would benefit consumers as it becomes a fiercer competitor to the larger Verizon and AT&T. The deal would also create a new, but smaller competitor as satellite TV company Dish pledges to build a next-generation, 5G cellular network.

A group of state attorneys general tried to block the deal, arguing having one fewer phone company would cost Americans billions of dollars in higher bills. Consumer Reports said the three remaining companies would have fewer incentives to compete on prices and quality.

Judge Victor Marrero in New York said Tuesday that the companies’ insistence the deal would cut prices and the states’ insistence that the deal would raise prices “essentially cancel each other out.” Instead, he chose to rely on what wireless executives have done in the past and what they commit to doing in the future in an industry that is changing rapidly.

T-Mobile has pushed in recent years such consumer-friendly changes as restoring unlimited data plans. Marrero said he found T-Mobile executives were credible at trial in promising to continue competing aggressively with AT&T and Verizon.

The judge also agreed with the companies Sprint was “at best struggling to even tread water” and would not last as a national wireless competitor. He also said he is persuaded the U.S. Justice Department’s side deal with Dish, which sets up the satellite TV provider as a new wireless company, would reduce the threat to competition.

Marrero’s decision comes after the Justice Department already approved the deal. Another judge still needs to approve the Dish settlement, a process that is usually straightforward but has taken longer than expected. A utility board in California also has to approve the deal.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, one of the leading attorneys general in the case, said her office was considering an appeal. She said Tuesday’s ruling “marks a loss for every American who relies on their cell phone for work, to care for a family member, and to communicate with friends.”

Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, said while consumers are often promised benefits from mergers, “what they are left with each time are corporate behemoths” that can raise prices and destroy competition.

Sprint shares jumped $3.42, or 71 percent, to $8.22 in midday trading after the ruling came out. T-Mobile shares rose $8.64, or 10 percent, to $93.17. Verizon shares fell nearly 3 percent and AT&T nearly 1 percent.

T-Mobile launched its bid for Sprint in 2018, after having been rebuffed by Obama-era regulators. T-Mobile CEO John Legere had seen President Donald Trump’s election and his appointed regulators as a good opportunity to try again to combine, according to evidence during the trial.

T-Mobile, which promised not to raise prices for three years, repeated previous arguments the combined T-Mobile and Sprint will be able to build a better 5G network than either company could alone.

In his ruling, Marrero said while Sprint and T-Mobile will provide 5G service without the combination, their standalone networks would be more limited in scope and take longer to build.

The deal got the nod from the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission, thanks to an unusual commitment to create a new wireless player in Dish. T-Mobile agreed to sell millions of Sprint’s prepaid customers to Dish. T-Mobile also has to rent its network to Dish while the fledgling rival built its own. Dish is also required to build a 5G network over the next several years.

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