Internet banking and brokerage will be a top priority for Fleet Boston Corp., the entity to be formed by the proposed $16 billion merger of Fleet Financial Group and BankBoston Corp.

"We intend to build our electronic banking and brokerage services to become one of the world's premier financial services companies," said Robert Higgins, Fleet's president and chief operating officer. He would manage the merged $180 billion-asset company's retail and commercial businesses in the United States.

Last year the hometown rivals raced to be the first major bank to bring Internet banking to New England, with both launching Web banking in July.

The combined institution would have about 500,000 electronic banking customers, officials said.

Some of BankBoston's Internet savvy might rub off on Fleet, said Chris Musto, a senior analyst with Gomez Advisors Inc. The on-line commerce research firm ranked BankBoston among the top 20 banks for Internet delivery of financial services, but Fleet failed to make the cut.

"BankBoston has been more aggressive about allowing customers to use the Internet to open accounts, and more progressive in the customer service area," Mr. Musto said.

Integrating two Internet systems that are already operating could be tricky, he added.

It also could provide an opportunity for the new bank to reassess its Internet efforts, said Laura Starita, a research analyst at GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn.

"The Internet banking market is really immature," she said. "We'll see a lot of reevaluating."

One area where this seems particularly true is in on-line brokerage services.

BankBoston does not offer Internet trading, but its Robertson Stephens investment-banking unit provides equity research for the Internet brokerage E-Trade Group Inc.

Fleet offers Internet trading through Suretrade, a unit of Quick & Reilly, the discount brokerage it bought in 1997.

Mr. Musto speculated that BankBoston's E-Trade alliance could come into question after the merger.

Suretrade could benefit from the research Robertson Stephens is providing to E-Trade. Fleet last week also raised the possibility of spinning off Suretrade.

Quick & Reilly's Suretrade is the eighth-largest on-line broker, with 3.4% of the market, according to Credit Suisse First Boston. Charles Schwab & Co. has the biggest share, 27.4%.

"The merger will definitely help the on-line brokerage operation by increasing scale," said James Vogtle, an analyst with Boston Consulting Group. "But they have still a long way to go before competing with the Schwabs of the world."

Mr. Vogtle advocated a long-term view of the integration in general, saying it would be measured in months and years, not weeks and months.

At a news conference Monday, officials from the banks said the integration probably would not get under way until the first quarter of 2000, to avoid diverting resources from the year-2000 compliance problem.

Michael Zucchini, Fleet's chief technology officer and vice chairman, would have the same positions at the merged bank.

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