Netscape Communications Corp.'s entry into Internet bill payment and presentment has raised further questions about the role banks will play in providing this highly touted, evolving service.

BillerXpert, the Netscape software for billers that can be installed on their Web sites and eventually rented through Netscape's Netcenter gateway, customizes views of billing information for four markets: telecommunications, cable, utilities, and financial services.

Cybercash Inc. performs payment processing tasks for the service, announced last week for general availability in the first quarter.

"At this point, I don't know whether Netscape's getting into this business is a good thing or a bad thing" for banks, said Michael A. DeVico, executive vice president of BankAmerica Corp.'s interactive banking division. "It's a question of standards and where consumers go to get their bills."

Internet portals like Netcenter can pose a threat to banks, said David C. Stewart, vice president of Global Concepts Inc. in Norcross, Ga. "If consumers can get bills delivered that way, then they won't have that much loyalty to their banks."

Catherine Corby, senior vice president of electronic commerce at Speer & Associates, Atlanta, said, "I don't view this as sounding the death knell for banks not to be big players in Internet bill payment and presentment. The market is still developing on the consumer side with lots of options.

"Netscape is going to raise the level of confusion," she said, "as we don't yet have a model in place that will work for consumers and billers."

Mr. Stewart said banks must find a way to interchange electronic bills and payments among themselves. Otherwise "nonbank processors pose a serious threat to the commercial side of the bank and jeopardize commercial relationships."

Netscape views banks as potential clients.

"We think banks are great customers for this application," said Jason Rosenthal, group product manager for customer relationship applications. "They are big billers, and they have a primary relationship with their customers through statements and credit card bills."

Banks can also gain business by processing billers' payments, he said. "We can work with any processor."

Billers would not be beholden to use Transpoint, even though Netscape has a close relationship with Citibank, a co-owner of that billing venture with Microsoft Corp. and First Data Corp. The Citigroup unit is the exclusive provider of financial services on Netscape's NetCenter site.

Citibank Singapore is among Netscape's first customers for BillerXpert, as is American Banker's parent company, Thomson Corp., along with Sasktel in Canada, and Lucent Technologies.

"We expect to announce other financial services companies in the next 30 days," Mr. Rosenthal said.

In mid-1999, BillerXpert will become available for billers to rent through the Netcenter home page. "This way a small, regional bank that wants to have bill presentment but not do it itself can rent it from Netcenter," Mr. Rosenthal said. Banks can customize home pages with financial news, weather, and bills on-line, all managed by NetCenter.

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