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Intuit tests billing on Web site

So far, just seven firms have signed on to present bills to customers over the Quicken.com site.

Personal finance software firm Intuit is quietly testing online billing and payment on its Quicken.com Web site, though it has just seven firms that let consumers view and pay bills online through the site.

That number puts Intuit slightly ahead of rival TransPoint, which has three billers up and running now and five due in a week. But the scanty numbers also illustrate the current dilemma of online billing: Where are the billers?

Intuit said it expects to bring its pilot testing to full operation by late summer.

The promise of electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) is widely recognized among banks and billers.

"It dwarfs payroll, it dwarfs taxes. It's probably the biggest kind of routine financial transaction that exists," said Bill Harris, Intuit's chief executive. But online billing and payment, he said, faces a chicken-and-egg problem: To attract consumers to pay bills online, it takes a significant number of billers presenting invoices online. But billers want enough potential payers to justify their investment in the process.

Nonetheless, competitive pressures and a desire to improve customer service are pushing billers into online bill presentment, according to a survey released today by PricewaterhouseCoopers and American Banker magazine. While those two factors are the primary drivers, billers also expect cost savings from EBPP of about 25 per cent. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that would save an average of 38 cents per bill among the billers surveyed.

But the survey, which also identified barriers for billers getting into online bills, also unveiled concern over differing business models and fluctuating technical standards.

"The [technology] industry is creating confusion," said Jay Norman, a Pricewaterhouse partner who was responsible for the survey. "Betting on the wrong model is a holdup for billers."

Although considerable research has been done about consumer attitudes on online billing and payment, very little research is publicly available on billers.

Banks, which seen themselves as logical outsourcers for billers to present bills and consumers to pay them online, fared poorly in survey results. Only 17 percent of billers said they look to their bank as a method to deliver their bills, with 35 percent each naming their own Web site or the Web site of a consolidator like Intuit, TransPoint, or an Internet portal.

"That's a huge wake-up call for banks," said Norman. "Banks have focused on the consumer side, but the corporate side has only been waking up in the last year because of TransPoint." TransPoint, which seeks to be an outsourcer for banks that want to get into online billing, is a joint venture of Microsoft, First Data Corporation, and Citibank, all of which are active or potential competitors to other banks.

"For banks, it's either define your role or it will be defined for you," Norman warned. The survey urged financial institutions to market themselves actively to billers, since 59 percent said they plan to use an outsourcer.

The survey also urged banks to integrate their biller and consumers efforts and to convince billers that consumers will need incentives to begin paying their bills online.

Big biller AT&T has been presenting bills from its Web site for 14 months now, and Kevin Duffy, who manages the project, said AT&T now will move to post its bills on other sites for payment.

"It's a convenience for consumers to go on one site and do all their bills," Duffy said.

That is the goal of Intuit and others, including sites like Yahoo, which has an unannounced bill presentment deal with CheckFree. But the 10 billers now up on Quicken.com aren't enough to draw huge numbers of consumers, Intuit's Harris acknowledged.

"It takes 50, 100 major billers," he said. "We think that critical mass start to happen in the second half of this year."

Participants in Intuit's test program can use their Web browser to view bills from BellSouth, CUNA Mutual, Florida Power & Light, HomeSide Lending, Nicor Gas, Portland General Electric, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

TransPoint's program currently has Con Edison of New York, the Orange County Register newspaper, and PECO Energy live. GTE and Xerox are listed but not currently available.

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