Cybercash Inc. began a pilot this week of a virtual "check" that consumers can use to pay bills and buy goods on the Internet.
The announcement of the PayNow Secure Electronic Check test means all three components of the company's virtual wallet are in action. Cybercash customers already can pay certain Internet merchants using credit cards and digital coins.
During the pilot, four bill-payment processing companies in different parts of the country will enable consumers to pay certain utility bills on- line with electronic checks.
Customers of these companies can look up the World Wide Web site of their local gas or telephone company, click on a bill-paying icon, and will then be offered the option of paying with a PayNow electronic check.
To take advantage of the service, a customer would have to have linked a checking account to the Cybercash wallet. The money used to pay the utility bill would be debited from his or her bank account.
"The key here is that we're going to simplify the navigation and presentment of billing data by putting it up on the Web," said Richard K. Crone, vice president and general manager of Cybercash.
"To date, bill presentment options have been pretty much limited, and bills have gotten more complex," he said.
"The Web is ideally suited to this. Customers can interrogate the bill. There may be some analytics so you can see, for example, how many calls your husband made to his ex-wife."
The electronic check product will become available nationally at the end of April, Mr. Crone said.
Banks will be involved in the pilot "by default," Mr. Crone said, since consumers will be instructing their banks to debit their accounts.
But some banks, including First Union Corp., have taken a more active role by distributing Cybercash's electronic wallet under their own brand names.
In a related announcement, First Union said this week that it had become the first bank to offer Cybercash's electronic coin product to consumers. The electronic check product will be added to the First Union wallet later.
Despite First Union's apparent endorsement, one Cybercash competitor questioned whether the firm was taking the right approach.
"Rather than having banks involved by default, we think banks should be in control," said Matthew S. Lewis, a spokesman for Checkfree Corp., Atlanta.
"Our fundamental position is that customers are not interested in replacing their banks with some sort of third-party bill payment services."
Checkfree offers electronic bill payment services to consumers through their banks. Although Checkfree and Cybercash have been partners in other ventures, Mr. Lewis said this week's announcement made it look like Cybercash was "stepping into some of our space."
Mr. Crone portrayed electronic checks as a useful Internet tool for banks.
"This system is based on the standards of the National Automated Clearing House Association," he said.
"We will generate automated clearing house transactions. Any bank that wants to extend its reach as an ACH bank onto the Internet, they can now do so with PayNow Secure Electronic Check service."
Mr. Crone depicted on-line bill presentment as a lower-cost alternative to paper, and one that can boost the visibility of a billing company's Web site.
"Paying bills on-line drives traffic back to your Internet site," he said. "The marketing departments of the companies we're working with are getting involved because they want to cross-sell their customers when they come in to pay their bills."
For the pilot, Cybercash is teaming with Princeton Telecom Corp. of Princeton, N.J.; Electronic Funds and Data Corp. of Bridgehampton, N.Y.; Cephas Multimedia Inc., of Kansas City, Mo.; and International Billing Services, of El Dorado Hills, Calif.
Cybercash anticipates customers will choose among its three on-line payment instruments-credit card, coin, and check-depending on what type of purchase or payment they want to make.
"I think each of them has a distinct buyer behavior," Mr. Crone said. "Credit card for hard goods, Cybercoin for those pay-per-view types of applications. Electronic checks are going to be for remittances of some sort."
"There will be spillover from time to time, but the merchant offering the Cybercash payment service will be able to accept payment in all three categories," he said.
A study by Jupiter Communications of New York predicts that electronic checks will have a place in on-line commerce-making their strongest showing for items between $10 and $50 in value-but that they will lag behind credit cards in dollar volumes.
"We feel that the metaphor of a check will be something that consumers will take to," said Nicole Vanderbilt, a senior analyst at Jupiter.
"Whether or not they are going to proliferate and be used widely I think still remains to be seen, because there haven't been any E-check schemes out there that have done any business."