Massachusetts community banks could lose one-third of their customers if big-bank competitors impose automated teller machine surcharges, a survey suggests.

As Massachusetts lawmakers mull legislation that would ban ATM fees entirely, the study found that 33% of Bay State community bank customers would probably switch to a bank with more ATMs if fees were assessed.

"This is not good news for community banks," said Donald S. Glass, president of the Community Bank League of New England, which commissioned the study. "It confirms what we have been saying: that ATM surcharges would muscle customers into moving to one of the two largest banks in the state."

No Massachusetts banks currently surcharge noncustomers for using their ATMs. But BankBoston has said it plans to do so this summer, and Fleet National Bank, which surcharges noncustomers in other states, could soon follow.

That could spell trouble for community banks, whose customers use Fleet and BankBoston machines because they are often more accessible than their own.

The survey found that about 80% of the 500 community bank customers polled use foreign ATMs. In fact, 21% say more than half of their transactions are at machines not owned by their bank. Fleet and BankBoston own about 2,000 of the 3,000 ATMs operating statewide.

"When you look at the concentration of machines the two big banks have, it only makes sense customers would have to leave our banks to avoid paying fees," said Paul C. Green, president of Boston's Massachusetts Co-Operative Bank. "Frankly, I wouldn't blame them."

Mr. Green's $58 million-asset thrift operates three ATMs.

Most vulnerable are institutions like Dean Co-Operative Bank in Franklin. About 45% of Franklin residents commute at least 20 minutes to work, said Wayne A. Cottle, president of the $100 million-asset thrift. For that reason, 70% of his customers' 18,000 ATM withdrawals each month are done at foreign machines.

"Years ago we offered our customers cards based on the promise they would have the freedom to get money anywhere," Mr. Cottle said. "We were told all we would have to pay is a network fee. We let other banks build huge ATM networks, assuming our customers would be allowed to use them."

Community banks have turned to lawmakers to keep the big banks from imposing fees. A bill that would forbid banks from surcharging noncustomers has already passed the state Senate, but that bill is presently tied up in a House committee.

Community Bank League members have said they would fight big-bank fees by forming surcharge-free multibank networks. But members no longer believe that is a solution.

"Banding together just won't solve the problem," Mr. Glass said. "Fleet and BankBoston have such a lock on the major cities in this state, it wouldn't make any difference to most customers if community banks didn't charge fees. We need legislation."

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