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MCI Communications Corp.'s aggressive plans for local telephone service and $20 billion investment in the information superhighway are the first of many competitive bombshells expected by telecommunications players this year.

In an attention-grabbing move, MCI launched its new information superhighway brand networkMCI in a $5 million TV campaign that broke Jan. 1.

The campaign mixes childish imagery with high tech, and stars 11-year-old New Zealand actress Anna Pacquin, featured in the film "The Piano."

In one introductory 30-second spot, Anna skipped, sang and said: "There will be no more there, we will all only be here," referring to high-speed data transfer on the interactive information superhighway.

Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, created the spot, which was shot in desolate areas of Utah.

If MCI puzzled network TV viewers with its approach, that was exactly its goal by generating "curiosity and intrigue" about network-38

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MCI, said Gerald H. Taylor, exec VP-group executive of MCI Communications Services.

The No. 2 long-distance telephone marketer also announced the formation last week of a new subsidiary called MCI Metro, in which it will invest $2 billion to create local telephone networks serving corporations and consumers. The move puts it into direct competition with the seven Baby Bells.

Meanwhile, No. 1 AT&T was strangely silent about MCI's plans, making the lack of any branding efforts for its own superhighway plans glaringly obvious. Once again, MCI has succeeded in putting its warm halo of brand marketing around cold, commoditylike services while AT&T was caught flat-footed.

No. 3 Sprint reacted to the news with a statement from its chairman countering many of MCI's claims about networkMCI, calling it an attempt to make "mountains out of molehills." Sprint made its own splash last week with the first voice-activated calling card, which lets callers dial through voice recognition.

MCI's dramatic New Year's moves signal its intentions to enter new competitive arenas.

Under MCI Metro, the company plans to build local networks in 20 major U.S. cities, starting in Atlanta, where construction of a local network will be complete by midyear.

MCI's local telephone network plans, which will require federal and state regulatory approval, are likely to add impetus to the Baby Bells' request for regulatory permission to enter the $65 billion long-distance industry. And MCI believes such two-way competition is "only fair," Chairman-CEO Bert C. Roberts said.

Partnerships with other corporations are crucial to MCI's plans on both the local phone and information superhighway fronts, but among new alliances there are likely to be strange bedfellows.

Archrival AT&T indicated it might even become a customer of MCI's local phone network, said Shelly London, district manager of public relations for AT&T's Data Communications Services.

MCI, in turn, said it "hasn't ruled out" the possibility of partnering with one of the Baby Bell companies, though partnerships with cable TV and high-tech information service providers are more likely.

The first customer on networkMCI is the National Science Foundation's network on the InterNet computer network. MCI said it will soon add others but would name no prospective customers or future partners.

Although AT&T hasn't advertised its information superhighway services, Ms. London said the marketer has similar, comparable offerings available, like MCI using Sonet technology.

"This an example of MCI trying to play catch-up with what we already have," said Dave Schmieg, president of Sprint's Consumer Services Unit. "Sprint has an even bigger role on the InterNet than MCI, and we're already offering customers many of the services MCI is just now introducing."

Nevertheless, MCI is the first marketer to advertise, or create a consumer-friendly brand name for information superhighway services.

That may put it ahead of rivals as interactive media use grows, industry observers say.

Sprint also set out to wow viewers with new high-tech capabilities last week with an estimated $3 million campaign for Voice Foncard, touted as the first voice-activated calling card. The card eliminates the need to dial authorization codes and programmed phone numbers.

In a series of network 30-second spots that broke last week, Sprint spokeswoman Candice Bergen is won over by the card's technology as she instructs it to make calls with her voice command. J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco, handles.

The new service, positioned as a tool for traveling businesspeople, costs $5 monthly and is available only to members of Sprint's Priority Gold calling plan.

Neither AT&T nor MCI offers such a service, and both said they declined to offer such a technology due to lack of significant demand for it.M


12Candice Bergen calls long-distance without dialing in a new Sprint TV campaign for Voice Foncard, its new voice-activated calling card

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