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US West tests phone with Net access

US West is testing a device that combines the telephone with Internet access.

US West, the Denver-based Baby Bell, is testing the waters to see if there is consumer demand for a device that combines the traditional telephone and access to the Internet.

US West has begun a three-month test of the TransPhone in 30 households in Spokane, Washington. The company is expected to announce this fall whether it will offer the $500 TransPhone to its subscribers.

Oracle, the leader of an industry coalition to promote a newly branded $500 Internet box called the Network Computer, has already suggested that telecommunications companies buy and redistribute NCs to their customers. But US West isn't waiting for the NC manufacturers, because most of whom won't be ready to ship until later in the year.

The TransPhone is available now with a regular telephone keypad, a digital answering machine, caller ID features, and a handset. But the device also comes with a monochrome monitor, 512k of memory, magnetic card swipe, two PCMCIA slots, a full computer keyboard, and two phone lines digitally controlled by fax-modem. The Transphone will let users send and receive email, as well as browse through virtual malls and buy products using the built in credit-card reader.

Although the large telcos have yet to jump on Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's suggestion that they subsidize universal access to the Net by giving their subscribers stripped-down computers like the NC, the notion of some kind of Internet box is getting serious consideration by many companies, including telcos like US West.

Miles Morimoto, director of transaction services for US West, thinks that people will be more comfortable with an upgraded phone than a downgraded computer.

"The typical user doesn't want to fool around with configuring a lot of stuff...We looked at the network-centric computer developed by major vendors, and most don't address the issue of obsolescence. Most people can't afford to keep up with Web technology," Morimoto said.

Related stories:
First NC sales slated for this month
Telcos eyeball Network Computers
Net box's fate hinges on developers
NC makers disclosed but buyers aren't
DEMO 96: TransPhone acts as three-way Net device
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