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ISP wars carry over to Comdex

ISPs and online services unveil major product upgrades at Comdex, another reminder that the ISP market is getting red-hot.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--Internet service providers and online services such as Pacific Bell, Earthlink, and CompuServe announced major product upgrades today, another reminder that the ISP wars are getting red-hot.

Earthlink today announced a deal to offer its customers Net access on high-speed ISDN lines. It also launched a custom start page for subscribers that lets users choose which sites are listed, just like MSN.

Earthlink also cut a deal with Microsoft to offer Web-page design with the FrontPage tool. It also announced high-speed frame-relay access, as well as an Ichat plug-in that allows chatting on Web sites.

CompuServe put the final touches on business alliances with search-engine companies to simplify Net surfing for its consumers. These deals, such as one between Lycos and Prodigy last month, can simplify Net searches, even though the tools are widely available on most services.

Sources say Pacific Bell will announce on Wednesday a bundled ISDN and Net access product for businesses and residents, another sign of how telephone companies increasingly are turning to bundling arrangements to sell Net access. The package will cost about $330, which includes the modem, cable, and other hardware, as well as the Net access, explanatory video, and CD-ROM. The price includes discounts from hardware suppliers Lucent and Nortel.

It marks the first time that a telephone carrier has offered Net access bundled with ISDN. The monthly charge for the service will be about $50.

All three announcements underscore the effort by ISPs to increase the features they provide in order to get a competitive edge. Like air conditioning, a CD player, and a sunroof on a car, ISPs and online services hope new features will make their services stand above the crowd.

But competition is intense, and many of the features have already been matched by others. CompuServe is working to revamp its pricing structure, possibly to offer unlimited Internet access at a flat rate, just like America Online, MSN, and Prodigy. That deal probably won't be announced until after Comdex.

Prodigy also announced its own enhancements. The company said it would roll out Macintosh and Windows 3.1 versions of Prodigy Internet 1.1, its upgraded flagship product, next week. The company also announced unlimited free time during users' first month online to try the service.