NEW YORK (AP) _ Bell Atlantic Corp., already in the midst of a huge merger with GTE Corp., reportedly is near a $45 billion takeover of AirTouch Communications Inc., the nation's second-largest cellular phone company.

The cable business news channel CNBC, citing sources close to the talks, said Thursday that a deal could be announced as early as next week. Bell Atlantic spokesman Bob Varettoni declined to comment and an AirTouch spokesman did not return calls.

At current stock prices, the reported purchase price would make Bell Atlantic-AirTouch the fifth-largest merger in history.

San Francisco-based AirTouch, a spinoff of former Baby Bell Pacific Telesis Group, ranks behind only AT&T Corp. among U.S. cellular phone companies. The company has 14 million cellular subscribers in the United States, as well as fast-growing international operations.

Newly merged MCI WorldCom Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC, Britain's leading wireless company, had previously been rumored as potential suitors for AirTouch, which has said it would be open to merger proposals, CNBC reported.

Bell Atlantic this summer agreed to merge with GTE in a $64 billion deal that would allow the companies to create a huge provider of all-in-one services, including long distance, local calling and wireless services.