LAS VEGAS — Only 55% of the nation’s community banks have transactional Web sites, but within three years almost all will offer full-fledged online banking, a study released this week predicts.

The study includes responses from chief executives at 519 community banks with assets ranging from $100 million to $2 billion. It was conducted by Chicago accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton LLP, which presented its conclusions at the Independent Community Bankers of America conference here Wednesday. The study found that 75% of community banks have Web sites, compared with 55% a year ago.

Though many sites are not interactive yet, creating a site is usually the first step toward offering online banking, said Paul Pustorino, the head of Grant Thornton’s financial services group, which administered the study.

The Internet is expected to help level the playing field as competition among community banks intensifies, said Mr. Pustorino, who addressed the ICBA conference.

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act triggered the race to go online, pushing small banks into competition with bigger banks, brokerage firms, and even Internet portals, he said.

“Gramm-Leach-Bliley has allowed more competition into the domain that community banks had a lock on,” said Mr. Pustorino. “Now more people have access to their customer base, and if they don’t use it to their advantage it’s going to be a tougher market.”

Not everyone agrees about the significance of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, though.

Debra Lins, president and CEO of $35 million-asset Community Business Bank in Sauk City, Wis., said her company launched its Web site to provide another delivery channel.

“Gramm-Leach-Bliley really didn’t play into it at all,” she said, adding that she plans to ease into online banking next year. “I knew we would have Internet banking — it’s just a matter of when it would be best for us and our clients.”

Indeed, 33% of the CEOs surveyed said they do not plan to make any changes as a result of Gramm-Leach-Bliley.

“To me, that’s scary,” Mr. Pustorino told the conferees. “That means you are losing ground. You’ve got to do something.”

Nearly 86% of those surveyed agreed that customers want Internet access to their accounts. The CEOs also see a widespread demand for online securities trading (61%) and wireless access to bank and investment accounts (45%).

Because of that demand, over a third of community banks surveyed said they would accelerate development of Internet banking services this year, and three-quarters said that offering Internet banking services is a necessary ingredient for continued success.

Among community banks already offering online banking, three services dominate: account monitoring (52%), transferring funds among accounts (52%), and bill payment (41%). These are also the top priorities for banks that do not offer online banking yet.

Within three years, the study predicts, almost all banks will offer these services on their sites. In that time, most banks also plan to offer online loan applications (81%), cash management services for small business (74%), and electronic bill presentment (64%).

Web sites are nearly universal among large community banks (96%) but are less widespread among small banks (56%), the study found.

Of banks that neither have a Web site nor plan to have one, 57% said that they do not see a need and 39% said they do not see the value.

Alan Kline contributed to this article.

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