The nation's major private-sector check-image networks have agreed to standardize, by the end of 2010, the way they process payments, the Electronic Check Clearing House Organization, or Eccho, said last week.

The clearing networks, which collectively call themselves the CheckImage Collaborative, said they had come to terms on a common manual for image exchange, a reference work called the Universal Companion Document.

The three dominant private networks — the Endpoint Exchange network operated by Fidelity National Information Services Inc., the SVPCO unit of Clearing House Payments Co. LLC and the shared check-image archive Viewpointe LLC — have all agreed to implement the UCD by the end of next year.

The Federal Reserve banks have not yet established a production date for the UCD but are testing it and plan to work with the industry, said Phyllis Meyerson, a senior vice president at Eccho, the Dallas rulemaker for image exchange.

Organizations that have programmed their systems for a 2008 version of the UCD need not make any changes to use the 2009 version; those that have not yet moved to the unified standard may need some new programming for interoperability with the various image exchange networks, Meyerson said.

The announcement marks the end of a long process.

When the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act took effect in October 2004, most big banks employed a "draft standard for trial use," called DSTU X9.37-2003; it was a modified version of a standard that banks had used to send payment information electronically for clearing, with the paper checks to follow.

But Endpoint held out on the X9.37 standard, favoring an alternative called X9.81, which used the more flexible extensible markup language rather than the fixed-field limitations of X9.37. Endpoint adopted X9.37 and agreed to use Eccho rules in March 2005, however, to make its network interoperable with others'.

The new version of the standard, X9.100-187, won approval in May 2008. Still, each network had its own technical implementation for image exchange, and the UCD announced last week resolves final issues such as what data fields must be validated in image cash letters and what kind of codes would be used for returned checks.