PORTLAND — AT&T officials declined Monday to go beyond their oft-repeated hedging that they “don’t have any plans” to close the T-Mobile call center in Oakland.

But the officials, during an editorial board meeting with MaineToday Media, hinted that the call center is likely to continue in operation following the company’s planned $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA. They pointed to the call center’s numerous awards and recognitions and noted that AT&T does not currently have any call centers in New England among its nine throughout the U.S.

The call center has about 700 employees and is the flagship business within Oakland’s FirstPark complex.

“I think, obviously, this call center is positioned very well,” said Owen Smith, AT&T’s regional vice president for external affairs. “I don’t know where it fits into the call center plan, but we don’t have any plans to close that.

“We’re looking at all aspects of the business and it’s too soon to tell how many of T-Mobile’s 24 call centers will be kept open. Looking at a merger of this size — let’s not kid each other — one benefit of a merger like this is consolidation. Does AT&T need all 24 call centers? My guess would be we do not, but my understanding is the call center (in Oakland) is rated very high with its workforce, quality and the numbers that T-Mobile looks at nationally. To me, that’s one of the things I’m sure AT&T would look at.”

Furthermore, New England in general in an important market for AT&T and Maine “is an important state” in the company’s planned service expansions, Smith said.

Maine’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, sent letters to AT&T following the announced merger plans in March, expressing a “profound concern” as to how the merger would impact the call center in Oakland and its jobs.

AT&T, which had previously declined to comment on the call center, responded to the senators’ letter by saying, “based on the information available to us currently, we have no plans to close the T-Mobile call center in Oakland following the merger closing.”

AT&T needs approval to complete its purchase of T-Mobile USA from the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission. The reviews could take a year or more.

Smith said AT&T hopes to win federal approval by the end of the year, even though the reviews could last until March 2012. Any decisions about call center consolidation won’t happen until the deal is final, which would happen 60 to 90 days after federal approval, Smith said.

“I don’t think we’ll hear anything along the lines of what call centers might stay open until after that takes place,” Smith said.

AT&T officials are also trying to build public support for their takeover of T-Mobile USA by highlighting planned upgrades of its wireless network in Maine.

Will Keyser, an AT&T spokesman, said the merger of the two companies is important because it will enable AT&T to gain access to unused spectrum — radio frequencies — which allows the company to service its network and expand access to high-speed wireless.

Since 2007, the amount of data AT&T customers use has increased by 8,000 percent, Keyser said, due to the explosion of popularity in smart phones that are not just phones and texting devices but also hand-held computers with wireless Internet. AT&T invested about $19 billion into its network last year “just to keep up with this data explosion in traffic,” Keyser said.

“Think if the traffic doubled on I-95,” Keyser said. “Imagine if it increased by 8,000 percent. You literally could not build the highway to manage that data.”

Armed with additional radio spectrum from the T-Mobile USA deal, AT&T would be able to expand the faster, so-called 4G service to more areas of Maine, particularly in rural areas. High-speed broadband Internet access could be brought to nearly a half-million Mainers, he said.

And because AT&T and T-Mobile use the same technology platform, the transition would be seamless, Keyser said. But the service expansion isn’t possible without the spectrum that comes along with the T-Mobile purchase.

“Our expansion of our footprint has come to a screeching halt the last 2 years and T-Mobile is the most efficient way to expand that,” Keyser said. “You would see immediate improvement in the network — in coverage, dropped calls — and it could happen within a year here in Maine. Our technologies are identical, so it’s a matter of flicking a switch and instantaneously they’ll see an improvement.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

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