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AT&T will cast its sizable shadow over the Internet by month's end.

The telecommunications giant is preparing to unveil an online initiative that will use the vast AT&T network backbone and a proprietary interface to offer business and consumer users simpler access to the Internet and other online services.

Those with knowledge of the project say AT&T will strive to assume a dominant role in electronic commerce quickly, despite the fact that rival MCI Communications Corp. launched its Internet offensive first.

"In typical AT&T style, they're trying to take over," said one observer. "They have the pipe to establish almost instantly a backbone of their own and then have points that link to the 'net, sort of like an overlay to the 'net. That will make for much simpler business and consumer access."

InfoWorld last week described AT&T's planned network as a private, nationwide "alternative" to the Internet.

Another executive familiar with AT&T's plans noted, "The Internet creates so much value for people, [so] an alternate would be for a small segment of the population .*.*. The main thinking here would be the current Internet has some significant limitations and perhaps the market would like something that was designed from the ground up."

One rival executive said he hopes AT&T opts for a proprietary system rather than embracing the open standards of the Internet: "The more closed they get, and that is in their blood, they're walking right into a jail cell."

AT&T's other online ventures will likely play some role in the new network. The company's portfolio includes Interchange Online Network, rolling out in June; ImagiNation Network; and PersonaLink, a network of personal communicators. AT&T Consumer Interactive Services recently hired Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, for its $15 million account, including ImagiNation.

"AT&T owns all these properties and they have to pull that all together," said an executive close to the company. "They'd be nuts if they didn't."

MCI in March rolled out internetMCI, offering business and consumer users access to the Internet, e-mail, news and entertainment services and secure shopping.

Debra Aho Williamson contributed to this story.

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