Comerica Inc., a pioneer in check imaging, has launched a service that gives corporate customers on-line access to images of checks posted to their accounts.

The service, which one observer called "leading edge," is made possible by a 250,000-gigabyte image archive capable of holding at least five billion check images. The archive gradually will replace a microfilm storage system.

Thirty-five days of check images-or around 70 million items-are stored on a magnetic disk system that allows for almost instantaneous retrieval of images. Magnetic tape handles longer-term storage.

Allen Lipis, chief executive officer of the Atlanta-based consulting company Global Concepts, said a number of U.S. banks are building image archives. Detroit-based Comerica, which in the early 1990s was one of the first large banks to install check-image technology, is ahead of the pack, he said.

Most large-scale check imaging systems have not paid off as expected, but the banks that have invested in them hope archive-based services will generate fees that could fix this.

In Comerica's new service, corporate customers equipped with the proper software can use their PCs to gain access to the archive 60 times a month for a $50 fee.

Such access can help users identify bogus checks and keep better track of finances, Comerica officials said.

"If someone wants to reconcile their accounts, they can do it daily, weekly, monthly," said Thomas Ogden, senior vice president for treasury management services at Comerica. "Instead of waiting to get a report, they can do it as the need arises."

Though the service can be offered via the Internet, Comerica sees more demand for the dial-in service. The $36 billion-asset banking company does not rule out offering a Web-based service, and bank executives also said they may design a service for retail customers.

Built in stages, the archive took about 18 months to construct at a cost "well into the seven figures," according to Mr. Ogden.

Comerica has supplied image statements for years, said Frank Borovsky, corporate marketing vice president. In the past, however, it lacked the storage capacity to hold images longer than the time it took to post them.

H. Douglas Ewbanks, executive vice president and managing director at Carreker-Antinori Inc. in Dallas, said, "There seems to be a oneness of mind" among large banks that check-image archives will help justify multimillion-dollar investments. In the short term, he said, archive applications "are largely going to be driven by cash management."

Other large banking companies running check imaging systems include Fleet Financial Group and Huntington Bancshares.

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