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Study: Consumers warm up to e-billing

Online bill viewing and payment will be among the fastest growing consumer applications over the next several years, according to a new study.

    Online bill viewing and payment will be among the fastest growing consumer applications over the next several years, according to a study released Monday.

    Jupiter Research noted that in 2001, American consumers viewed 643 million bills online, which represents 6 percent of all U.S. consumer bills. That number is forecast to jump to 3.5 billion in 2006, or 32 percent of all such bills.

    Since the Internet entered the mainstream nearly a decade ago, national banks have spent billions of dollars developing online services. In the past few years, the smaller regional and community banks also have invested heavily in providing Net services. But to the banks' chagrin, while the number of consumers using the Web to manage their money is steadily increasing, many people still choose to view and pay their bills directly to their credit card, telephone and utility companies.

    That habit likely won't be broken in the near future. Jupiter reported that direct biller sites--such as wireless phone carriers, utility companies and cable television providers--account for 83 percent of bills viewed online, though this number will dip to 60 percent by 2006.

    There is a silver lining for banks, however. By 2006, 40 percent of the bills viewed will be at sites that consolidate consumers' various accounts in one place, and consumers would prefer banks to be that place, according to the study. Meanwhile, federal legislation has led a growing number of banks to seek to minimize their processing of paper checks.

    "As consumers spend more time online, they tend to replicate many of their offline relationships," the report noted. "They often use the online offerings of their existing banks and brokerage houses."

    But consumer interest in bill payment via Internet portal is likely to remain weak--disturbing news for players, such as Yahoo, which are hoping to limit their reliance on advertising revenue by moving to paid services such as bill payment. Less than 6 percent of online users prefer a portal's bill viewing and payment services, according to the study.

    The study predicts that by 2006, more than 50 million households will view bills online and 52 million households will pay at least one bill online.