Fleet Financial Group's credit card unit is hatching plans for a separately branded Internet business to be introduced early next year.

The name has not been chosen, and Fleet is releasing few details, other than to say it is eager to attract customers through the World Wide Web.

The new business is "not going to be our sole strategy," said Warren Wilcox, executive vice president of planning and development at Fleet Credit Card Services in Horsham, Pa. But the company has decided it would be "really smart for us to have a pure play on the Internet." He said the idea is along the lines of the Aria Web site that Providian Financial Corp. of San Francisco recently established to offer credit card customers a separate on-line product, and of NextCard Visa, a brand introduced two years ago by NextCard Inc. and aimed at Internet shoppers.

Boston-based Fleet's new business will be "spawned in the same way that venture capital spawned NextCard and Providian spawned Aria," Mr. Wilcox said.

In recent actions to assert separate Internet identities, Bank One Corp., which owns the credit card leader First USA, opened WingspanBank.com in June, and American Express Co. introduced Membership Banking in July. Both on-line banks take deposits and offer other traditional bank products.

Mr. Wilcox would not specify the products that will be offered by Fleet's new service.

"There is a whole spectrum with credit cards on one end and consumer money management on the other, with things like lending and banking somewhere in the middle," Mr. Wilcox said, listing the possibilities. "I think you'll see our strategy starting to evolve in that area as we move into the first part of next year. We're working on it right now."

Fleet, with $13 billion of credit card receivables, became one of the largest card issuers in 1997 when it bought the consumer card holdings of Advanta Corp. It moved its operations-which until then had only $2 billion in card loans-to Advanta's location outside Philadelphia. Fleet's anticipated merger with BankBoston Corp. would add $300 million more in card loans, Mr. Wilcox said.

Though its portfolio is far smaller than those of Citigroup, First USA, and MBNA Corp.-each is in the vicinity of $70 billion-Fleet has national aspirations and views the Internet as way to achieve its growth goals.

Fleet has recently signed three cobranding deals with Internet portals and said it expects those relationships to bear fruit within a few years. The biggest deal was with Lycos Inc., the search engine. The others were with Go2Net Inc. and 24/7 Media Inc, which also link to a variety of Web sites. In another World Wide Web initiative, Fleet is running banner ads for its platinum and titanium cards.

Fleet's collection of on-line partnerships is far less vast than that of First USA. Mr. Wilcox said that Fleet does not aspire to be as large as First USA, and that the three existing partnerships already pack sufficient advertising punch.

Fleet expects its card portfolio to be noticeably larger by yearend. "Right now, the bulk of growth is coming through direct mail and telephone marketing," Mr. Wilcox said, "but I think that realistically, the on-line will start to kick in as a relevant percentage of our new-account growth in the year 2000."

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