Verizon, seeking to challenge AT&T, is in discussions to buy wireless provider Alltel, according to two people familiar with the talks...

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Verizon, seeking to challenge AT&T, is in discussions to buy wireless provider Alltel, according to two people familiar with the talks.

TPG and Goldman Sachs, which took Alltel private last year in a deal valued at $27.5 billion including debt, would get a slight premium to the equity they invested in the Little Rock, Ark.-based company, said one person, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. Their lenders would get less than face value for the debt they still hold on their books.

A deal would make Verizon the top mobile-telephone company in the U.S., passing AT&T and adding Alltel’s rural operations, which make up the country’s biggest geographic network. Verizon Chief Executive Officer Ivan Seidenberg is relying on wireless as customers scrap land lines.

“All of the U.S. operators are racing to increase their exposure to wireless because it has the best growth prospects of anything in their portfolio,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni, TPG spokeswoman Lisa Baker, Goldman Sachs spokeswoman Andrea Raphael and Alltel spokesman Andrew Moreau declined to comment.

Verizon fell 38 cents to close at $36.98 Wednesday. The shares lost 15 percent this year, more than the 7.4 percent drop at AT&T.

TPG, formerly Texas Pacific Group, and Goldman Sachs’s buyout unit agreed in May 2007 to acquire Alltel in the biggest leveraged buyout in the telecommunications industry. Since then, Alltel has picked up users, closing last quarter with more than 13 million customers.

Alltel subscribers are mainly in rural areas and it carries calls for customers of AT&T and Verizon where they lack coverage, leading to speculation when the buyout was announced that a bigger rival would eventually purchase the company.

Christopher King at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. said Wednesday a purchase by Verizon, which co-owns the wireless business with Vodafone Group, could lower expenses by as much as $1 billion a year by eliminating roaming charges and duplicate transmitters.

Before the buyout, CEO Scott Ford spun off Alltel’s landline unit and built the wireless business with the $4.5 billion purchase of Bellevue-based Western Wireless in 2005 and Midwest Wireless for $1.08 billion in 2006.

Verizon’s Seidenberg also has emphasized wireless in the face of competition from cable companies such as Comcast. Verizon added 1.5 million mobile users last quarter, beating the 1.3 million new users at AT&T.

Verizon ended the period with 67.2 million total wireless customers. AT&T had 71.4 million.