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Bell Atlantic Corp. is the first of the Baby Bells out of the interactive starting gate, and its rivals are chomping at the bit.

The Federal Communications Commission on July 6 approved Bell Atlantic's 19-month-old request to build a "commercial video dialtone" network to compete directly with local cable TV operators.

Although a variety of interactive TV tests are under way or planned, Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic will likely be the first in the telecommunications industry to begin marketing such services.

Starting early next year, Bell Atlantic will offer video services to some 38,000 homes in the Toms River, N.J., area, including TV programs, movies, home shopping, advertising and healthcare information services.

Most of the remaining six Baby Bells are awaiting FCC approval for their own TV offerings; all have announced plans to test such services.

"We're a little disappointed that Bell Atlantic stole our thunder, because we were hoping ours would be the first-and the largest-actual commercial TV service to be announced," said Mike Brand, a spokesman for Chicago-based Ameritech.

Ameritech filed five applications last January with the FCC asking permission for the rollout of a commercial TV operation that would reach 1.23 million homes and businesses starting in the Chicago area; Mr. Brand says it's unclear when permission might be granted.

Bell Atlantic is wasting no time. It plans to immediately proceed with construction of an interactive network that will bring TV services to homes where it currently provides telephone service. The video services will be available by next February or March, the company said, at rates lower than those charged by the area's cable TV carrier, Adelphia Cable Communications Corp.

Bell Atlantic has already inked a 10- year deal with FutureVision of America Corp., West Conshohocken, Pa., to provide home shopping, information services and advertising to viewers.

The system's first advertiser will be the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, said FutureVision President Robert Schena. The newspaper's offerings will likely include still photos and audio for various types of classified advertising, including personals, automotive and real estate. Other advertisers are expected to sign contracts in coming weeks, he said, although he declined to identify additional prospects.

The FCC approval clears a major ad sales roadblock for FutureVision, which initially will charge marketers a low, flat fee to add interactive overlays to existing commercials.

"All of a sudden our dreams got turned into goals," Mr. Schena said. "We've been struggling in `idle' for a year and a half. Now, for both Bell Atlantic and us, we shift into drive."

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