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Telecom bundling back in vogue?

MCI Internet is the latest telco to offer discounted Net access to its long distance customers, a sign that bundling may be back.

Is bundling Net access with phone service making a comeback? MCI Internet is quietly offering access to the Internet for $14.95 per month--$5 per month less than the going rate--as long as users sign up for its long distance telephone service.

Sprint also says it is testing a discount on Internet access for customers who sign up for at least three of its services: Internet, long distance, local, PCS, or paging. That deal calls for 10 percent off the entire package.

These deals are examples of the ballyhooed bundling of telecommunications services, or "one-stop" shopping, that was promised with industry deregulation but has yet to materialize on a widespread scale. AT&T previously offered five hours per month of free Net access for its long distance customers, but that deal ended last summer.

Now it could be gaining momentum again. "This exclusive offer for MCI long distance customers makes local Internet access easy and affordable," says a posting on the MCI Web site that discusses the plan. "At a price this competitive, you can't afford not to choose MCI Internet as your Internet provider."

MCI also is offering an hourly plan at $5 per month for five hours and $1.50 per hour after that. The MCI $14.95 deal is also available to select WebTV customers.

The MCI deal is not receiving much, if any, publicity beyond the Web page posting within its corporate Web site.

Sprint says it is considering matching MCI's offer or announcing its own version of the plan, but no decisions have been made. "We're looking at it," a spokesman said.

Other Internet service providers, meanwhile, are making changes in their own pricing plans. IBM, for example, last week announced a 100-hour cap on its $19.95 per month pricing plan. After that, users will pay extra. And CompuServe offers flat-rate pricing at $24.95 per month, $5 above the going rate.

Some analysts say the telecommunication carrier's ability to offer discounts through bundling with other telco services could give it leverage over competitors that only offer Net access. But it still faces marketing hurdles with many consumers. The telco's ability to market ISDN, for example, has run into criticism from some consumers.