Agribank, one of eight wholesale banks that provide funds to the nation's farmers and agricultural businesses, has boosted its telecommunications horsepower using services from MCI Communications Corp.

Agribank joins banks Citicorp, NationsBank Corp., and a host of smaller institutions that use advanced frame relay switching services, which handle barrages of high-speed data over wide area networks.

MCI has connected more than 400 Farm Credit Services offices in the Midwest to Agribank.

The system will enable loan officers to work with farmers and ranchers at their place of business.

"We've traditionally depended heavily on a branch-based delivery system," said Richard Spradling, a vice president with Agribank's information services unit.

He said the bank had been encouraging its representatives to work remotely, but, "We really didn't have an information system that supported them in that effort. Frequently, they found themselves needing information, needing to conduct various types of business, and having to get back to the customer with additional information," he said.

The new services from MCI are designed to help solve this problem. Field officers traveling to remote areas use the new services to send and receive large volumes of information, such as credit applications and insurance policy terms via laptop computers.

Mr. Spradling said the services are designed to "improve customer service and to free up loan officers' time to engage in additional marketing, sales, and customer service activities."

"This allows a loan officer to provide full customer service in a remote, untethered fashion," said Mr. Spradling.

Officials declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

MCI also will provide a 24-hour toll-free phone service that uses software to automatically route calls from customers to the nearest Farm Credit Services office.

MCI, based in Washington, D.C., provides consumer and business long- distance phone services, data and video communications, electronic mail, and network management services. Its sales last year were $13.3 billion.

John Metzger, a national account branch manager with MCI, said the new services are a fast and efficient way to handle customer requests for information.

The privately owned Farm Credit Services cooperatives provide agricultural lending and related financial services to eligible farmers, ranchers, and rural residents.

Agribank, a $15 billion institution based in St. Paul, is used by 30 Farm Credit Services associations of the Seventh Farm Credit District, which consists of 11 states, including Arkansas, Ohio, and North Dakota.

It is the nation's largest agricultural lender, with $12 billion in loans outstanding. About $55 billion in loans are serviced by the Farm Credit System nationally.

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