Saying price pressure has abated a bit,


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forecast stronger-than-expected 2004 free cash flow Thursday.

Financial chief Tom Horton told investors at the Credit Suisse First Boston Telecom & Media Week conference in New York that the company expects to exceed its 2004 free cash flow goal of $4.8 billion. Horton cited growing market share among top-tier businesses and continued austerity at the big New Jersey telco.




finance chief Bob Dellinger was asked by the conference moderator to address a published report suggesting Sprint might try to merge with rival



. Mostly shrugging off the question, Dellinger replied that Sprint is, like any responsible public company, committed to exploring whatever strategic alternatives might arise.

For its part, AT&T said this fall it would cut 20% of its workforce over the course of 2004, a target that meant the loss of 12,000 jobs. Horton said Thursday that the company is ahead of plan on that reduction and expects to exceed its job-cutting goal, bringing year-end staffing below 49,000 workers.

In the company's core business services market, price pressure "has abated a little bit in the last few months," Horton said, though he said AT&T isn't ready to call it a trend just yet. He said AT&T continues to win back big customers, building on gains it made in the third quarter.

AT&T said revenue will continue to fall next year, but suggested the pace of the decline would slow. That has investors attending the talk awaiting the company's 2005 guidance.

According to a Thomson First Call analyst estimate, Wall Street expects AT&T to make $1.73 a share on $30.4 billion in revenue this year and $1.76 a share on $26.4 billion in revenue next year.

Early Thursday, AT&T rose 19 cents to $18.69, while Sprint gained 53 cents to $23.03 and Nextel added 15 cents to $28.12.