Barnett Banks Inc. announced last week that -- working with Apple Computers Inc. and Bell-South Corp. -- it would test advanced telephones for home banking

Barnett plans to distribute the prototype devices, developed by Apple, to between 50 and 75 households and small businesses in Orlando beginning later this month.

Barnett, based in Jacksonville, Fla., joins Citicorp, Banc OneCorp., Bank of Boston Corp., and MNC Financial Inc. in testing enhanced telephones for home banking, a service that thus far is largely unproven in the market..

Banks hope that such services can become an important source of fee income, but questions remain about how much consumers will be willing to pay for an enhanced telephone.

Penmanship Counts

The device resembles a notebook computer -- complete with with a speaker telephone but without a keyboard. The customer uses a pen to make choices on a menu. The device can also send and receive faxes.

The telephones will be connected with Atlanta-based Bell-South which acts as a gateway to the Barnett service, and could eventually act as a gateway to other information services such as home shopping or bill payment.

Barnett hopes to gain market research from the test. "We have absolutely no plans to roll this out," said Catherine Corby, director of alternative delivery systems for Barnett.

Price May Be Determinant

Barnett hopes to determine whether some customers are more likely to use automated banking services if they can view their account data - as opposed to just listening to information from an automated telephone system.

Observers believe price will be a deciding factor in whether consumers take to screen telephones or not. Some of the tests, such as the one Bank of Boston is conducting with Northern Telecom Inc., focus on low-cost, relatively low-tech devices.

Others, like Citicorp's use higher-priced telephones that work with "smart cards" that can store account holder's data on a microchip.

AT&T Project Abandoned

American Telephone and Telegraph Co. abandoned earlier this year a project to develop a computerized phone because the device, at $500, was too expensive. AT&T's partner, Huntington Bancshares Inc., is now looking for another development partner.

AT&T officials said they are looking into introducing a lower-priced line of enhanced telephones at a later date.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., has not set pricing for the prototype devices.

Ms. Corby said that while she does not know what the devices will cost, Barnett "believes that to get screen phones into the mass market, you need a low price point," not exceeding the $200 range.

Paying Bills a Future Option

In the first phase of the test, Barnett customers will be able to look at balance information, ATM transactions, and checks that have been cashed, and order new checks. Eventually, users will be able to pay bills electronically using the device.

A study by Atlanta-based Synergistics Research Corp. recommended that banks be wary in adopting video enhancements to telephones for home banking.

The study was based on interviews in September 1992 of 963 consumers incomes of more than $15,000. A large number of respondents, 266, had incomes of more than $75,000.

Upgrading Isn't a Given

The study found that financial institutions cannot count on existing users of voice-response telephone systems to upgrade automatically to video-display systems, nor can they expect that those who do not use voice-response systems will be more attracted to new telephone technology...

The test of the screen telephone service is the second home banking service announced by Barnett recently.

Last month, the company announced a service on the Prodigy information network that allows customers to pay bills using a personal computer.

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