Bell South and Prudential Bank, which teamed up six months ago to issue a cobranded card for consumers, have done so again for small-business customers.

The Visa Small Business Card from Bell South Telecommunications Inc. comes with similar rates and features as its consumer counterpart, something that will distinguish it from other small-business cards, said James Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting, Fairfield, Conn.

"In one sense it flies in the face of what's happening out there" with small-business cards, he said, by having rebates and coming without a fee. "On the other hand, you can see how competitive this marketplace is getting."

In fact, two huge players in the card industry - American Express Co. and AT&T Universal Card Services - said they have begun testing small- business cards for revolvers recently. American Express, far and away the leader in the corporate card market, currently has 1.6 million small- business accounts. AT&T is new to the market, now issuing an undisclosed number of Universal cards for small-businesses through its industrial bank in Utah.

Together, the two have been jointly marketing CorporateLink, an American Express card for small-business customers that combines business phone calls with purchases since the late 1980s.

Meanwhile, Bell South, based in Atlanta, has gotten a leg up. The regional Bell operating company said it will to market its new Visa cards to Bell South Small Business Services customers in nine states.

"We started looking at the whole gamut of small-business needs, and this was an area we felt we could provide some additional value to these customers by combining their calling card with a credit card," said Karen M. Roughton, a Bell South spokeswoman.

Bell South's no-fee card comes with a 7.15% interest rate for six months, followed by prime plus 7.9%.

Cardholders earn a 1% rebate for balance transfers, 1% for general spending, 2% for paying their monthly Bell South telephone bills with the card, and 20% for any calling card calls they make on the card.

There is a $300 cap on rebates each year, excluding calling card charges. Cardholders receive a rebate check after their one-year anniversary date.

The small-business Bell South card differs from its consumer card in some ways. For example, cardholders who qualify can get credit lines as high as $25,000. Also, cardholders will receive a detailed annual expense report for accounting purposes. The card offers more enhancements than the consumer card: emergency medical referral assistance, lost luggage insurance, auto rental insurance, and extended warranty protection on purchases.

Some 40% to 50% of small-business cardholders revolve their accounts. Visa U.S.A. says that their average purchase is $108, with just under six transactions per month.

Visa divides the small-business market in two. Companies with 10 or fewer employees and less than $1 million in sales, of which there are 7.4 million, and companies that have as much as $10 million in sales and fewer than 100 employees, of which there are 2.2 million. The total market size for both is $170 billion.

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