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MCI, Jones test phone/cable

The nation’s second-largest long-distance company and the seventh-largest cable operator plan to test a system that allows customers to place long-distance calls over their cable wiring.

The test is the first attempt to bring one of the cornerstones of the interactive multimedia promise — a cable company providing phone service — to reality.

MCI Communications Inc. and a unit of Jones Intercable Inc. plan to offer the service to employees of both companies in Alexandria, Va., in March. A few months later, the test will be expanded to one of Jones’ seven cable systems in the Chicago suburbs.

The system, which will use technology developed by Scientific-Atlanta Inc., will let customers watch TV and make phone calls at the same time over the same line. Additionally, customers will be able to order and receive pay-per-view movies over the lines.

The tests are limited, in part, to give the venture a sense of what customers might want from the new technology.

“We want to find out what sells best and take it from there,” said Tony Pomilla, MCI’s director of access policy and planning.

The initial test in Virginia will only give customers the opportunity to bypass the local telephone provider, Bell Atlantic Corp., when making long-distance calls. Long-distance calls traditionally are carried over local telephone lines to a central switching station, where they are then transferred to the lines of the caller’s long-distance carrier.

Virginia, like 45 other states, restricts competition for local phone business. The MCI-Jones venture will start the second test a few months later in Chicago, in part, because Illinois is one of the four states that allows open competition for local service.

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