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WebTV dials up prices

WebTV confirms that it will charge a flat rate of $19.95 per month for its Internet access service on television sets starting in mid-September.

WebTV confirmed today that it will charge a flat rate of $19.95 per month for its Internet access service on television sets starting in mid-September.

The price is comparable to what many Internet service providers, including telephone companies, charge for dial-up access on PCs. WebTV's service is offered via television, the most ubiquitious of all household electronics appliances. The plans were reported by CNET yesterday.

Besides the $19.95 monthly charge, consumers will have to pay between $330 and $350 for a set-top box licensed by its partners Sony Electronics and Philips Consumer Electronics.

Consumers and industry analysts alike have been anxiously awaiting the pricing for WebTV, widely viewed as a leader in the burgeoning market of television Internet access. The company, which has the credibility of its established partners from the television industry, was the first to announce full-scale mass consumer service when it unveiled its product this summer.

Later this month, the company will announce more partnerships. WebTV chief executive Steve Perlman wouldn't elaborate on those deals in an interview yesterday, but they are expected to include consumer electronics, cable TV, hotel, and media companies, sources said. The company also will try to expand its audio content.

WebTV promoted these features in its announcement today:
--Quick installation in less than 15 minutes with a set-top box to the TV. The company will feature a button called One-Thumb Browsing that makes Web surfing "as easy as channel changing."
--Up to five separate email accounts can be registered per unit. A feature known as MessageWatch alerts users to email via a message light on the set-top box, akin to a telephone answering machine.
--KidsProtection, which includes software from SurfWatch to filter Internet content.
--The Smart Card, which can be inserted into a slot on the set-top box to make purchases or bank online.
--AroundTown, a neighborhood guide of U.S. cities designed to offer access to local Internet content.

Some challenges lie ahead, such as making sure the content correctly fits on the TV screen and the graphics are clear. But WebTV remains confident that it will succeed.

"This will be the first mass-market Internet TV product," Perlman said.