The race for the federal government's $4.5 billion long-distance telephone service and equipment contract could make its winners -- and may break the losers.

"Whoever wins will have a leg up in terms of financial viability or survivability," said Richard Wolf, executive vice president for LaBlanc Associates, a New Jersey information industry consulting firm. "The others will have one foot on a box and the other on a banana peel."

Bidding for a replacement for the present American Telephone & Telegraph Co. system to provide high-speed voice, data and video capabilities, will begin this spring, and a contract will be awarded in early 1987.

Analysts say large corporate users will also benefit from the design and sale of the government system. And, they say, the contract will mean business for everyone from long-distance companies to regional phone companies to network equipment manufacturers to small resellers of phone service.

And, for the first time, AT&T may not be the natural winner, they say. The long-distance giant has dominated government communications procurement, but the General Services Administration, which will make the award, is looking seriously at other companies.

The six companies the GSA finds "interesting" in terms of being potential prime contractors for the job are AT&T, MCI Communications Corp., Satellite Business Systems, GTE/Sprint, ITT Corp. and United Telecommunications Inc., said Ben Bennington, director of telecommunications services for the agency.

"It could be a major break in the dike of AT&T dominance in civilian and military contracts," said Jerome Lucas, president of TeleStrategies Inc., a Virginia consulting firm. "It would be a major blow to AT&T if they lost it."

Likewise, a long-distance company like US Telecom, a subsidiary of Missouri-based United Telecommunications, "would have enough traffic to make them a major player in long distance," he said.

The contract will hinge on winning the title of prime contractor and then signing other companies up as subcontractors on the job. "There is no one company that can do the whole thing," he said.

But any company winning the title of prime contractor will also have a pipeline into federal agencies looking to replace leased AT&T phones with purchased phones as well as buying computer terminals.

"Every company is just frothing at the mouth to win this contract," said Jean Yates, vice president at International Data Corp., a Palo Alto, Calif., consulting firm. "The network is just the tip of the iceberg, people realize controlling the entire network is the key to controlling the equipment."

Companies could double the value of the $4.5 billion contract through future equipment sales to the government, she said.

Video-conferencing and data or phone equipment companies are actively wooing prospective prime contractors to make sure they get in on the act.

Washington's MCI Communications Corp., one company that plans to bid for the job, has already gotten "hundreds of companies calling wanting to participate with us," said Jerry Gibson, director of government systems. "There are a lot of folks talking."

"Whether we team up we haven't decided," he said. But MCI plans to capitalize on its connection to International Business Machines Corp. and on the video-conferencing and data-tranmission expertise of Satellite Business Systems, said Gibson. MCI is purchasing Satellite Business Systems, a McLean-based business communications service provider, from IBM and once the transaction is complete IBM will hold a 16.5 percent stake in MCI.

AT&T, MCI's major competitor, "is spending millions to prepare for this bid and the ante is high," said Gibson. AT&T declined to be interviewed for this article, except to say that it will be responding to the bid.

GSA's Bennington said the contract "really is a linchpin for the industry." As a result, "There is something of a frenzy going on." An Expensive Contest ----

Bennington said one communications company executive believes "the companies have spent $3 million flying around just to put together teaming arrangements."

Another executive with a very large telecommunications company said the contract, spread over 10 years, will involve so much work "no one is going to make much money -- but no one can afford to lose it."

Regional phone companies are also seeking the title of prime contractor.

"Four billion dollars is a lot of money, that's got to pique a corporation's interest," said John Morgan, vice president of government systems at Bell Atlantic Corp., the Philadelphia parent of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. "I have not lived in a vacuum and the procurement has been discussed for two years."

Federal regulators recently waived a restriction preventing Bell Atlantic from serving as a prime contractor to the federal government.

Many of these companies teaming up at the impetus of the government could create a powerful new force in the industry.

Said LaBlanc Associates' Wolf: "You've got one strong company trying to team up with another -- US Telecom does not have the wherewithal, Bell Atlantic does not have unilateral rights to bid, you are getting teaming action with new entrants like General Motors . . . Western Union has a lot of expertise and not much money." Major Firms Also Work Harder

Because the government is looking for such a wide range of services, it will also force major competitors such as IBM and AT&T to work harder to bolster the weaknesses that are their adversaries' strengths as voice and data technologies merge, said the GSA's Bennington.

"What I think we are doing is forcing IBM and AT&T to come to terms with the requirements of the 1990s, we are pushing them to realize they are in the same business," he said.

Even more importantly, the government's insistence on the ability of disparate pieces of equipment to communicate directly with one another "will drive standardization faster," said IDC's Yates.

"It will affect the kind of standardization and equipment used over the next 15 years and benefit anybody using computers and telephony." Idea in the Works Since 1981

The idea of a new long-distance federal phone network arose in 1981, when a special bulk-rate price for long distance service from American Telephone & Telegraph Co. was withdrawn.

"The price went up $100 million a year" for phone service, he said.

The government had to wait for the industry to evolve. In 1981, "there wasn't a common carrier industry -- that window begins to occur around 1987-1989," Bennington said.

The selection process relies on industry comments and a group of representatives from 10 federal agencies that will make recommendations on the capabilities and price of any system.

Then, Frank Carr, commissioner of information resources management at the GSA, will make a decision and the administrator of the agency, Terence Golden, will "bless it," said Bennington.

"Currently, we serve 72 individual federal agencies; whoever wants to be part of the buy can be," said Bennington.

Many companies, some whose business doesn't normally include commercial networks, are interested in the contract, he said. Martin Marietta Corp., the Bethesda aerospace, defense and communications company, "is committed to winning it," said Bennington. A spokesman for the company said that it was studying the government's proposal. IBM Entered Fray Reluctantly

IBM was previously a reluctant suitor, but lately its interest has been aroused, said Bennington.

"When I first talked to IBM it was 'We are not in the voice business.' I literally had to make a grandstand play to the president," Bennington said.

Now, the company has a project team in Washington concentrating on how to put the bid together, he said. Smaller companies are also in for the long haul.

"MCI and GTE/Sprint are in there, and so are providers [of network switching equipment] like Northern Telecom," said Bennington.

Other analysts say the only company that's in the running is the company that has already won most federal communications contracts.

"It's obviously the super plum of the decade in telecommunications," said Michael Schumer, vice president of telecommunications at the Gartner Group.

"It's very likely there is only one company on the face of the Earth that can meet the requirements -- and that's AT&T."