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MCI intensifies battle over cellular market


Bell Atlantic Mobile and Cellular One, the duo that have dominated the Baltimore-Washington cellular phone service market since its inception, now have a powerful new competitor: MCI.

The nation's No. 2 long-distance company announced yesterday that Baltimore and Washington are among the 10 markets in which it is introducing wireless services through its MCI Cellular subsidiary. The cellular service will be packaged with a menu of other MCI services, including paging, electronic mail and a new "lifetime" 500 number service that was also introduced yesterday.

Washington-based MCI Communications Inc. gained a foothold in the cellular market last month by acquiring Nationwide Cellular Service Inc., the nation's largest reseller of cellular service.

By entering the cellular market as a reseller, MCI will avoid the costs of building a network of its own. Instead, it will buy cellular system capacity at a wholesale rate that the incumbent providers are required by law to offer.

Where Nationwide was a little-known niche player with about 50,000 customers in the Baltimore-Washington region, MCI brings to the market a powerful brand name and deep pockets for advertising its services.

John Donoghue, vice president for marketing of MCI Consumer Markets, said the company will give the new service a heavy push by integrating information about its cellular service into its "Friends & Family Connections" advertising.

MCI hopes to entice customers by offering cellular long-distance service at a 50 percent discount for a year. The monthly access charge is $29.99, with 30 minutes included -- roughly comparable to Cellular One's one-year Peace of Mind plan for relatively light users of the system.

Mr. Donoghue said MCI's edge is that it will be able to offer a variety of services individually or as part of a package by calling one 800 number.

One of the services MCI will offer is what it calls a "Friends & Family 500 Number" for $1 a month. The service lets customers give out a single number with a 500 prefix that will be assigned to them for life. The 500 number will let customers route their calls to wherever they are at the time -- work, home, cellular phone or directly to voice mail.

MCI's 500 number service will be competing with a similar service introduced by AT&T; Corp. in January.

Steve Sitton, president of Cellular One's Baltimore-Washington system, professed to be unconcerned.

Steve Fleischer, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic Mobile, noted that his company would not be able to match MCI's half-price cellular long-distance offer because, as an arm of a regional Bell company, it is prohibited from entering the long-distance business. "It's competition. We welcome it, but we'd welcome it more on equal terms," he said.

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