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Years from now, when Southern California's "Great Quake of '94" is recalled, part of the story will be the role this disaster played in broadening the market for interactive telecommunications services.

News coverage of the quake, more than any other recent event we can recall, put the practical utility of new telecommunications tools on display for of people across the country and around the world.

First, just as the Persian Gulf war did for CNN, the quake focused world attention on interactive on-line services such as Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online. The words "computer bulletin board" became a prominent part of quake coverage.

Within hours after the quake hit, nimble managers at the on-line services created special earthquake bulletin boards for subscribers. They quickly became impromptu communications lifelines. Prodigy alone recorded 23,000 messages on its special earthquake bulletin board in just a few days.

For millions of people who followed the story, the message was clear: "Talking" by computer is as useful a communications service as the telephone and not just a plaything for computer wonks.

Second, the quake provided a stage for demonstrating the benefits of "telecommuting," as employees-stranded at home by damaged freeways-used home computers and home faxes to link up electronically with their offices and others so that businesses could function.

Marketers of interactive services are not going to let the lessons of the quake recede. Prodigy is extending the series of live commercials touting its service; Pacific Bell is planning a campaign to encourage telecommuting. Even now, marketers surely are looking for testimonials on how their services helped people get through the quake's chaotic aftermath.

It isn't easy to convince people these present and future interactive services are more than technological toys, and to establish them as office and household necessities. The costly "Great Quake of '94" may prove to be the jolt that makes this a mass market years ahead of earlier forecasts.

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