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AT&T to offer prepaid Web surfing cards

The telecom giant dips into Net micropayments by offering prepaid Web content cards, which let people buy access to Disney, Shockwave.com and other sites.

    Want to buy some Web content with that Icee? You might soon be in luck.

    On Tuesday, AT&T unveiled its PrePaid Web Cents cards, which are similar in concept to prepaid phone cards, but which let people buy access to Web content instead of telephone time.

    People can buy the cards at a retail counter and use them to visit specific Web sites by entering a number on the back of the card. The PrePaid Web Cents cards mark AT&T's foray into the online micropayment arena, which so far has yielded more road kill than success stories. Micropayment models allow people to shell out small amounts of money to view Web content or to pay for services online.

    New York-based AT&T said it's hoping to replicate its phone card success in the hard-to-crack online micropayment market. It's aiming to capture people who traditionally haven't been willing to pay for online content, such as teenagers, impulse buyers and people who aren't comfortable giving out their credit card numbers on the Web.

    "It enables a whole cash-based marketplace that hasn't been used before," Mike Palumbo, sales director for AT&T's prepaid services unit, said.

    The cards are Web site-specific, and companies including Walt Disney, electronic city guide provider id="924668">Vindigo and entertainment site AtomShockwave have partnered with AT&T in the micropayment venture.

    AtomShockwave, for example, is offering prepaid access to its GameBlast subscription service , which offers online puzzles and action games. Consumers can buy a two-month subscription card for $14.95 or a six-month card for $29.95.

    Shockwave.com CEO Mika Salmi, in a statement announcing the partnership, called the cards a "unique marriage of prepaid technology and digital entertainment."

    The cards are on sale at Speedway SuperAmerica, Uni-Mart and other stores. AT&T said it also hopes to expand the outlets to include the thousands of stores across the United States that already sell its phone cards, along with some that don't. Retailers such Wal-Mart and Sam's Club sell AT&T phone cards.

    For the most part, online micropayments have not succeeded because the payment process has been cumbersome and many consumers have balked at paying for Web content.

    Startups such as DigiCash built business models around electronic cash plans, only to end up in bankruptcy court. Others, including First Virtual and Citibank, have abandoned their micropayment efforts after they failed to pan out.

    AT&T said its venture differs from previous efforts in that the cards are available at retail stores. Most previous micropayment models required people to use a credit card to purchase online credit, which they could then use for micropayments to sites.

    Palumbo said AT&T doesn't see its PrePaid Web Cents cards as competitors to credit cards and added that he still thinks credit cards are best for buying merchandise online. Instead, AT&T is hoping the cards will enlarge the market of companies offering paid digital content.

    "What we want to do is expand their reach," Palumbo said.