AT&T announced a new version of its predictive service designed to help protect far-flung businesses from worms and viruses without deploying firewalls at each location.

New capabilities for AT&T's Internet Protect service incorporate worm and virus protection into AT&T's network-based firewall and will be available early next year.

The enhancements are aimed at thwarting attacks before they infiltrate a customer's IT infrastructure, servers, PCs, applications and end-user devices. Since it was launched, AT&T said the tool has been credited with thwarting malicious worms and viruses, such as when it detected the Sasser worm in the wild before it was unleashed. As a result, AT&T added, it was able to warn hundreds of customers and recommend solutions, which could be executed through a secure Web portal.

AT&T said the Internet Protect service can help save money on equipment and management costs by reducing total cost of ownership, compared to a non-networked alternative.

"We believe the network will develop into a security device," Stan Quintana, director of AT&T's managed security division, told internetnews.com.

Today's announcement is the latest advancement for the security service. In June, AT&T announced a feature designed to stop distributed denial-of-service attacks .

Several customers have signed on for that service, including mail and document management company Pitney Bowes and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which deployed it ahead of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Bedminster, N.J.-based AT&T also markets its Internet Protect service to large organizations doing business online, such as retailers, financial services providers and federal government agencies.

AT&T is among a flurry of network operators rolling out new security features as enterprises grapple with evolving network security threats. Likewise, network equipment makers such as Cisco and Juniper have been snapping up security startups to bolster their own security portfolios.

The network security services are part of AT&T's strategy to transform itself from a carrier of consumer long-distance calls to a provider of IP services for enterprises.