Merging onto the information superhighway, First Union Corp. has created one of the industry's most extensive on-line customer information centers.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based superregional has placed more than 150 "pages" of information about its products, services, job listings, consumer credit tips, and corporate community involvement on a computer billboard on the Internet. Any consumer who owns a basic account on the Internet can access this information.

Many companies - including most of the country's largest banks and prominent nonbanks such as Merrill Lynch and Fidelity Investments - already offer services over the Internet.

But few have made as expansive an offering as First Union. Even Citicorp still posts only one "home page" of basic information.

This represents First Union's entry into the interconnected web of networks known as the Internet, which could evolve into a popular platform for banking and other forms of commerce in coming years.

The Internet currently is believed to be accessible by more than 20 million users on more than 44,000 computer networks worldwide - a fast- growing community on which to build interactive service businesses.

First Union's computerized customer service "branch," called the First Access Network, is only the start of a future business vision that bank officials have dubbed Cyberbanking.

"Cyberbanking is our concept of computer-driven banking for consumers and merchants on the Internet," said Fred Winkler, a senior vice president at First Union.

The bank went so far as to register "Cyberbanking" as a service mark, which begins to build a brand identity for its electronic commerce services. (See related story on branding.)

As envisioned by First Union, Cyberbanking will eventually encompass a wide variety of banking and shopping services along the Internet - beyond customer service information. These services will soon include electronic shopping malls, complete with virtual merchant storefronts at which consumers can purchase goods over the Internet.

Of primary concern to the bank is establishing a secure means of data transmission over computer networks, according to Tom Bartolomeo, vice president for marketing and strategic planning at First Union.

This is in line with the course many other major banking companies are following. Wells Fargo & Co. and BankAmerica Corp., for instance, have also placed data encryption at the top of their lists, penning recent agreements to produce and enlist such technology.

Although First Union has not yet partnered with a service provider - as banks like Wells and BankAmerica have done - Mr. Bartolomeo characterized the development a data encryption standard as the bank's "No. 1 goal right now" in its strategy to enter the Information Age.

"As encryption technology develops over the next year, we will be able to ensure account confidentiality, which will allow us to execute financial transactions, such as credit card purchases, bill paying, and credit applications on-line," Mr. Winkler said.

"Being part of the Internet is a critical step in positioning First Union for the future."

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