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US West broadband portal takes shape

The local telco is ramping up its efforts to become a consumer Internet powerhouse, developing "push"-style Net portal software that will run directly on users' computers.

US West is ramping up its efforts to become a consumer Internet powerhouse, developing "push"-style Net portal software that will run directly on users' computers.

The telephone company's deal with BackWeb Technologies yesterday puts in place a critical piece of software infrastructure that US West once hoped to get from PointCast, the original "push" media pioneer.

BackWeb, another developer of software that streams information directly to a users' desktop, will help US West develop a "thin client" piece of software that will serve as a gateway between US West Internet subscribers and the Web, according to company executives.

"The static portals of today will have to adapt to broadband access," said Ophyll D'Costa, US West's vice president of business development. "We're trying to create the next-generation online experience."

The company says the product under development will be able to stream personalized information to desktops without a user ever even having to open up a Web browser or go to a central hub site, like Yahoo.

The software, which would run on top of a browser but not require an open browser window to operate, would be similar to Yahoo's pager service, which delivers stock quotes and calendar alerts. But the US West system would offer a far broader ranger of personalized topics, executives say, as well as deliver music or video files, software, or ordinary HTML to a user's desktop.

"This would constantly be scraping information from the Web that is relevant to me based on the profile that I've set up," D'Costa said.

US West is also working with an unnamed personalization company to create a profiling component that would allow a user to get recommendations about other sites or topics.

Although the service will be more effective with an "always-on" broadband connection, like DSL or cable modem, dial-up customers will also be able to use the service, D'Costa said.

The technology is also likely to be integrated with US West's other communications systems, analysts said. If a user didn't respond to a stock update or other critical information alert, the software could send the information to a pager or phone, said Allan Bonde, a director of the Extraprise Group, an online business consulting firm that has followed BackWeb closely.

"This has the potential of linking all of those media types," Bonde said. "That portal concept should follow you anywhere."

Riding the broadband wave
Like the other Baby Bell telephone companies, US West is hoping to become a brand-name consumer broadband player, linking its traditional communications services and its Internet services in a way that it never was able to do successfully in the dial-up world.

The Denver-based company took an early lead in rolling out high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) Internet access, and has experimented with cable TV and video-on-demand systems over DSL lines. It has yet to roll out these more advanced services beyond trials, however.

But where Bell Atlantic and SBC Communications have already signed deals allowing America Online to use their high-speed DSL wires for its service, US West is doing its best to preserve its own brand.

"We're not actively in discussion with AOL," said US West !nterprise group president Joe Zell in an recent interview with CNET News.com. "Our business model is not to be just a dumb pipe for other providers."

The BackWeb deal isn't the first time US West has sought a push partner to help ground its new consumer Internet service.

Last fall US West was part of a consortium of telcos working with PointCast, to create a joint consumer Internet service, similar to high-speed access provider @Home Network, using DSL lines.

But that deal fell though after the consortium, which also included BellSouth and Bell Canada, decided they would need another large partner to be successful, sources close to the talks said.

The company hopes to have the service ready for rollout by the end of the third quarter or beginning of the fourth quarter of 1999, D'Costa said. The system will have a new brand, in addition to the US West.net Internet service, but the company not yet settled on a name, he added.