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AT&T offers family plan for Net access

In a move to gain more business from its existing local and long-distance consumers, AT&T unveils a family plan that offers customers three Internet access accounts for the price of one.

In a move to gain more business from its existing local and long-distance customers, AT&T announced Monday an Internet access plan that offers three separate accounts for the price of one.

Under its WorldNet family plan, AT&T consumers can pay $23.99 a month for one unlimited Internet account and receive two additional unlimited accounts for free. The subscriber can use all three accounts in one household or give the additional accounts to family members or friends anywhere in the United States.

The new pricing plan comes two months after the phone giant sold its cable business to Comcast and a week after it announced an expanded outsourcing agreement with broadband provider Covad Communications. Previously, AT&T faced some drawbacks in launching new Internet-related initiatives because of concerns that its broadband cable business could be hurt, analysts said.

"Now that the cable business is spun off, AT&T is a pure wireline (telecom company)...and we may see the company begin to take more aggressive actions," said David Barden, an analyst with Banc of America Securities. "Possibly AT&T will revisit its wireless strategy and look for partners there."

Under the new pricing plan, all three Internet accounts can be used simultaneously, rather than bumping one person off the service when another one logs on. Most Internet access providers, such as America Online, allow multiple e-mail addresses but not multiple accounts under one pricing plan.

Each of the three accounts will include six e-mail addresses, instant messaging, anti-spam features, anti-virus security and parental controls. Billing for the service will be sent only to the subscriber's local or long-distance AT&T account. The current price for the family plan is guaranteed for a year, said Janet Wyles, an AT&T spokeswoman.

Analysts, however, are skeptical that the pricing plan will drive a wave of new subscribers to AT&T's WorldNet service.

"I think AT&T is doing the right thing in bundling services with its local and long-distance offerings," Barden said. "But I do not expect a tidal wave of subscribers to stampede to their service immediately...It's tough to get people invested in a particular domain or e-mail account to migrate to another provider's service."

He said AT&T's biggest returns with the new plan likely will come from families who are in the process of getting a second computer, rather than those who already have multiple computers and e-mail accounts.