M&I Data Services said Thursday that it would roll out an electronic bill payment and presentment service; it was the third such announcement by a prominent provider this week.

On Monday Spectrum, a venture owned by Chase Manhattan Corp., First Union Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co., said Alltel Corp. and Intelidata Technologies Inc. would build its service, with a full offering available by yearend. MasterCard International announced the following day that it too would roll out a full bill presentment and payment service based on its Remittance Processing System, which executes 8.5 million bill payments a month, by the third quarter.

The close timing of these announcements is turning up the heat on all the providers to get their services to market quickly. All ultimately are in competition against CheckFree Holdings Corp., the Atlanta bill payment and presentment services company that has advanced the farthest into this emerging, potentially lucrative field.

GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn., has predicted that 15 million U.S. households will pay their bills electronically by 2002 and that one in every four consumers will have bills presented electronically by 2004.

CheckFree has 89 of the nation's largest billers under contract for bill presentment and has electronic connections to another 1,100 merchants. It has further strengthened its hold on the market through a plan to merge with its closest rival, Transpoint, a joint venture of Microsoft Corp., First Data Corp., and Citigroup Inc.

"There are announcements and then there is the delivery of the announcements," said Jeffery Baker, an analyst at SunTrust Equitable Securities.

"We'll have to wait to see if any of this has any impact, but in the meantime CheckFree continues to build out its services and expand," he said. "They have a full solution, soup to nuts, but clearly all three coming into the market will drive awareness."

Milwaukee-based M&I Data Services, the bank outsourcing division of Marshall & Ilsley Corp., will make its bill payment and presentment services available to banks and corporations by the third quarter.

The service, to be called e-Pathway EPP, is partly an enhancement the company has made in its custom statement formatting service, which is bill publishing software used by 23 of the largest banks, three of the largest five telecommunications companies, and 37 of the top 75 utilities in the nation.

M&I has developed an Internet version of this software that is used by institutions such as FleetBoston Financial Corp. and GMAC to let mortgage customers call up details of their bills online.

M&I officials plan to extend this capability, developing services that can present bills at a consumer's Internet banking site using open, interoperable standards.

"We expect that over time this will evolve very much like the ATM world, where we will need to do interchange, switching, and routing" to banks and consumers using other services, such as Spectrum, MasterCard, or CheckFree, said Nancy Langer, senior vice president at M&I Data Services.

"We fully expect to do interchange because we are never going to have all the bills and all the consumers," she said. "Neither will CheckFree; neither will anybody."

She said she viewed Spectrum as a company that can act as a neutral third-party switch to route bills to their intended destinations. Spectrum could also let M&I interact with CheckFree indirectly, since Ms. Langer doesn't foresee her company working collaboratively with CheckFree.

M&I operates a bill payment business that serves 1,500 financial institutions and 350 of the largest billers in the nation. The company, which has a "pay anyone" capability that lets it deliver payments to merchants that do not have electronic connections, processes about one million transactions a month.

About 43% of M&I's bill payments are made electronically, which is about average for the industry

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