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AT&T joins dial-up 'accelerator' race

The service can increase the delivery of Web pages, but file swappers and others will not see any improvement.

AT&T's Worldnet on Monday joined the growing list of dial-up Internet service providers offering software that reduces the amount of time needed to download a Web page.

Dubbed "AT&T Worldnet Accelerator," the service will cost $14.95 a month and is available only to AT&T's local and long distance telephone subscribers. For those who are not AT&T phone customers, the company charges $21.95 for Worldnet as a standalone dial-up Internet service provider (ISP) without the acceleration software.

While AT&T says the service lets people surf the Web "five times faster," the software doesn't create more bandwidth that would quicken the downloading of files, such as music or documents. The technology, provided by San Jose, Calif.-based Propel, stores Web pages on a PC hard drive, making them faster to access the next time the pages are visited.

America Online, EarthLink and United Online's NetZero service already promote their own accelerated ISP services. AOL paid an estimated $10 million to sponsor last month's infamous Super Bowl halftime show with AOL Top Speed. Meanwhile, NetZero and EarthLink have also run promotions touting Web surfing at five times the speed of standard dial-up services.

The services show that there are customers who want more speed but aren't willing to pay $40 to $60 a month for true broadband delivered through cable or digital subscriber lines (DSL), according to analysts.

"There's still a certain segment of market that's not willing to make a leap to broadband," said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research. "This is a way of retaining them because they are able to market some of the speed advantages of broadband."

For AT&T, the launch underscores a campaign to offer products that bundle Internet access with phone services. The company hopes the new products will prevent further erosion of its coveted long distance customers by adding discounted local phone and Internet services into the mix. Cable and local phone companies have had success in selling similar bundled services, helped in part by greater demand for home broadband access.

AT&T began offering DSL service last summer to its phone customers through a partnership with Covad Communications. Last week, AT&T executives said they would explore "alternative" ways to offer broadband, such as through electrical power lines or through fiber networks.