As providers of electronic bill presentment services to major U.S. billers, banks rank near the bottom of the list, according to a survey being released today.

Only two of 35 respondents to an American Banker/PricewaterhouseCoopers survey said they deliver electronic bills through financial institutions. That was well below the nine that said they deliver bills through their own Web sites. Eleven said they use third-party consolidators such as Checkfree Holdings Corp. and Transpoint.

Nor can banks draw encouragement from the billers' plans. Though 12 billers said they plan to offer electronic bills through financial institutions, 18 said they plan to work through consolidators, and 20 said they plan to offer bills on their own sites. Respondents to the survey, which will be formally presented today at an American Banker conference on electronic bill payment and presentment in San Francisco, could indicate more than one delivery method in their responses.

The results point to a need for financial institutions "to define their role in electronic bill presentment to billers and make it clear why banks need to be in this space," said Jay Norman, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Checkfree, of Norcross, Ga., emerged as the most popular provider of electronic billing services, with more than half the billers citing it as their provider.

Forty-nine billers use Checkfree's E-Bill to send electronic bills. Bank One Corp. and First Union Corp. also use E-Bill to give customers access to electronic bills.

Princeton TeleCom of Princeton, N.J., was the second most popular provider, with 20% of responses. Transpoint was third, with 15%.

However, Transpoint was mentioned most often as the company that billers plan to work with. The joint venture of Microsoft Corp., First Data Corp., and Citigroup accounted for 32% of responses, compared with 26% for Checkfree and 13% for Princeton TeleCom.

Mr. Norman advised banks to push for standard methods of exchanging electronic data as a way to improve their prospects in the expanding electronic bill presentment business.

He also recommended refining methods of sending electronic bills. "There's confusion among billers about the models," he said.

Another goal should be to stimulate consumer demand for on-line billing, he said. That concern emerged as the dominant one for billers, with 26 of the 35 respondents pointing to it.

"This still is a chicken-and-egg game if you look at the predicted growth trends and what's going on today," he said. "Something needs to be done if those growth trends are to be realized."

To that end, banks could provide incentives, such as free electronic billing for a limited time, to spur customers to receive and pay bills on- line, he said.

Despite concern over demand, respondents said they expected the service to take off. Companies that already offer electronic billing predict that 13% of customers will use it within three years, up from less than 1% now.

In the next three years, these billers expect to deliver more than four million electronic bills, more than 10 times the 400,000 bills they expect to deliver over the next year.

Mr. Norman said, "This is definitely a hot topic for billers."

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