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CheckFree signs online billing partner

Microsoft's TransPoint is still in the pilot stage, but that doesn't mean CheckFree will ignore the threat from Redmond in the online billing market.

CheckFree has lengthened its lead in the online billing services market, leaving Microsoft's competing TransPoint venture in pilot mode as CheckFree adds a contract with electric utility Nevada Power.

But CheckFree CEO Pete Kight isn't underestimating the threat to his business posed by Microsoft and its two partners in TransPoint, payment processor First Data Corporation and Citibank. The joint venture, originally called MSFDC, is scheduled to begin this summer.

"We have 2.5 million consumers, more than our competitor, but we are competing against a rival with unlimited pockets," Kight told investors at a conference in San Francisco last week, referring to Microsoft and TransPoint.

"Everybody is going after this business," said Sharon Osberg, who heads online bill presentment at Wells Fargo Bank. "It's a brand new business with huge opportunities across a whole variety of players."

A year ago, online billing companies were racing to set up relationships with banks. Today the contest is focusing on signing up billers--utilities, credit card companies, department stores, and others that regularly mail paper bills to customers.

Online billing includes bill paying and bill presentment, which allows customers to view their bills online and reduces the biller's printing and mailing costs. Industry experts put the cost of sending a paper bill at more than $1 apiece.

"From the consumer point of view, we need to collect bills from as many suppliers as we can," said Wells Fargo's Osberg, saying her bank, like many others, are working with both CheckFree and TransPoint as distributors. Wells is has direct relationships with several utilities in California to get their bills presented on Wells Fargo's Web site too.

"It's too early to pick TransPoint or CheckFree as the winner," Forrester Research advised clients in December, urging them to sign up with one to begin testing.

Banks aren't the only ones vying to consolidate bills for consumers. Online broker Charles Schwab has had bill presentment since its bill-paying offering launched in late 1997, but only for the billers in CheckFree's stable. Quicken.com, the personal finance Web site of Intuit plans to add online bills to its bill-paying service.

The portals are interested too. CheckFree has announced a deal with a portal site that it won't identify but is believed in the industry to be Yahoo. Netscape's Netcenter has announced its intent to host online billing services for customers that use its Internet billing software, BillerXpert.

These consolidators want the traffic that would come from being a consumer destination for viewing and paying online bills, which would provide revenue in itself but bring customers back on a recurring basis.

CheckFree spokeswoman Laurinda Wilson said her company has contracts with 13 utilities and several large telecommunications firms, including AT&T and MCI WorldCom, which are already in force.

TransPoint has announced 37 partners, with another 30 or so working on TransPoint pilots now but not willing to go public. TransPoint expects to launch its service later this year, and Matt Cone, vice president of business development, said much of delay now is due to banks and billers getting their systems ready to offer the service.

"Many of these billers are working with both TransPoint and CheckFree," Cone said. "It's a matter of testing both systems."

CyberCash has been pushing a another model that allows billers to present their own bills on their Web sites and gives consumers the ability to pay with CyberCash's electronic checks. But rivals question whether consumers will want to visit a separate Web site for each bill they pay, arguing that consolidation makes the task far easier for customers.

"By this summer or the end of the year, there will be many points for consumers to receive e-bills, and they will need to receive them from multiple publishers," Cone said.