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US West trials its TV Internet service

The Baby Bell begins trials of a service that will provide consumers access to the phone and the Internet through their television.

US West said today it has begun trials of a service that will provide consumers access to the telephone and the Internet through their television.

Dubbed "WebVision," the service will allow consumers to watch TV and surf the Internet at the same time, as well as make a telephone call or check voice mail through a set-top speakerphone system.

"We realize it's not just about rolling out technology. It's about integrating it," US West CEO Sol Trujillo told the audience at the Digital Living Room conference in Dana Point, California, today.

The TV-phone-Internet is the latest in a series of high-tech trials US West has launched in hopes of transforming itself from a stodgy Baby Bell telephone company into a modern technology firm.

Few of these services, such as video over phone lines or high-speed wireless data services, have been rolled out beyond small trial projects, however. US West is hoping to use its proposed mergers with either Global Crossing or Qwest Communications International as a launching pad for these high-tech ambitions.

In earlier interviews, US West executives have said that their conservative shareholder base, which has traditionally looked for the stable, slow growth of local phone utilities, has kept them from investing in mass market rollouts of advanced communications services.

The company's planned merger with Global Crossing, which has been led in large part by Trujillo, was intended to help free up US West's high-business from the influence of its risk-averse shareholders, executives have said.

Those merger plans are now somewhat up in the air, however. After US West had already accepted Global Crossing's merger bid, Qwest made its own offer for the company last week. Though the value of that bid has dropped sharply with Qwest's stock price, US West has yet to accept or reject the offer.

US West's integrated phone-TV-Internet system comes as other companies such as America Online and Microsoft are doing all they can to make sure their own Internet services find their way onto consumers television.

America Online today invested $1.5 billion in Hughes Electronics to help launch versions of AOL over Hughes' DirecTV and DirecPC satellite television and high-speed Internet systems. Microsoft's WebTV has a similar, smaller deal with satellite company Echostar.

The big telephone companies are quickly trying to integrate their own phone services with Internet and TV functions. AT&T, with its promises to integrate phone, Internet services and cable TV over its new cable networks, is the farthest along in this market.

US West itself has other integration projects underway. In his speech today, Trujillo also said the company would team up with Alcatel later this year to launch a Web Phone device that could be plugged into any phone jack and launch its user onto the Web.

The WebVision service itself was originally named @TV, a name uncomfortably close to the @Home high-speed cable access controlled by AT&T.

It is currently in technical trials in Denver, Minneapolis, and Phoenix, but is slated to roll out across US West's 14-state service area this fall. The service can use ordinary 56K dial-up phone connection or a high-speed DSL Internet line. Users will still have to subscribe to traditional cable TV to get a television signal, however.

The service uses set-top box software created by Liberate Technologies , the Oracle spin-off formerly known as Network Computer Incorporated.