MCI MOUNTS AOL ASSAULT TO WIN OVER ONLINE USERS: $20 MIL EFFORT FOCUSES ON LOWER MONTHLY FEES

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MCI is playing David again.

After years of fighting Goliath AT&T Corp. for long-distance market share, MCI Communications Corp. is setting its sights on giant America Online for a share of the online user market.

An estimated $20 million print and TV campaign launched late last week compares MCI's price with AOL's higher prices. Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/ Euro RSCG, New York, is the agency.

America Online recently raised its unlimited access price from $19.95 to $21.95 per month, effective April 1. At about the same time, MCI dropped its price from $19.95 to $14.95 for people who are MCI long-distance customers.

`INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT'

"The Internet is an increasingly important part of our business. This is not the first time we've advertised our service, but it is the first time we've talked about the $14.95 price in a public way," said Gretchen Gehrett, VP-advertising and communications.

About citing AOL specifically in the ads, she said: "They are the biggest and they've just launched a price increase."

MCI has about 400,000 Internet customers, compared with AOL's 11 million users. AT&T WorldNet has about 1 million users, and Sprint Corp. recently stuck a deal with Earthlink to create Earthlink-Sprint, which will jointly handle a combined 600,000 Internet users.

MCI's pitch should appeal to three kinds of potential customers -- those who are price sensitive, those who may be frustrated with AOL's peak time network slowdowns and those who want to bundle long distance and Internet service together onto one bill, said Joe Bartlett, associate director of Internet marketing strategies at Yankee Group.

According to the consultancy's surveys, about 20% of consumers would prefer a bundled package of services.

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