First, an Internet payment processor, is making progress in helping Asian banks prepare to do business over the Internet.

It has signed a contract with a bank consortium called Jetco to supply its 51 Asian bank members with a multicurrency electronic commerce and electronic bill payment and presentment platform. First plans to give away the technology but charge fees for bill payments and credit and debit card transactions.

Gregory Pek, president and chief executive officer of Reno, Nev.-based First, said Asian banks have been reluctant to establish Internet-based payment services because of a lack of resources and qualified technology developers. A free front-end Internet gateway and back-end link to First's processing service should help banks bypass these stumbling blocks, he said.

First, which was launched in March to help banks and merchants based outside of the United States process on-line card payments, is positioning itself to become Asia's main third-party Internet payment processor, Mr. Pek said. "There is only room for one."

Because Asian banks do not process Internet payments, merchants that want to offer electronic commerce in Asia must establish U.S. operations, contract a U.S.-based bank to process card payments, and get a U.S. Internet service provider to transact credit card sales. These companies would be subject to U.S. laws and taxes.

Transaction processor First Data Corp. supports the processing of card payments received from First's system at Bank of Bermuda. Merchants can accept payments in any currency. First, which is listed on the Nasdaq exchange, is also developing an on-line merchant approval system that banks can use to screen merchant participants.

In May, First took the first step toward its goal of replicating on the Internet the success of Visa International's card processing network, by hiring Raymond Chan to be director of bank processing systems. Mr. Chan spent 17 years with Visa International, most recently as executive vice president and general manager of Visa's China region.

Avivah Litan, a research director at Stamford, Conn.-based GartnerGroup, said First has a "winning model" for Internet-based payment processing. Banks and merchants look to third-party processors to "get up and running as quickly as possible," she said.

The Hong Kong-based Jetco consortium includes, in addition to local banks, big international institutions such as Chase Manhattan Corp., Citibank, Standard Chartered Bank, Bank of China, and Bank of America.

First intends to roll out its system in the first half of 2000, Mr. Chan said. It will begin with banks in Hong Kong and then offer the system to banks in Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, and Singapore, Mr. Pek said.

The Asian banks will replicate the First credit card payment gateway at Bank of Bermuda. "We just need to change the routing numbers," Mr. Chan said.

First's electronic bill payment system is scheduled to go live in September with a Hong Kong-based telephone company, Peoples Telephone Co. Ltd. Hong Kong's nine main utility companies also have expressed interest in signing up, Mr. Pek said. First's system would let people view and pay bills from these companies over the Internet, using a credit card. Payments would be processed at Bank of Bermuda.

First is also working with three real estate companies in Hong Kong to include its bill payment service in the "smart" buildings they are erecting as part of an effort to recreate Silicon Valley in northwestern Hong Kong. The buildings offer residents free Internet access, free personal computers, Microsoft software, and personal on-line identification.

First uses Internet commerce and information publishing software from Burlington, Mass.-based Open Market Inc. and is working with Microsoft Hong Kong Ltd. to develop a system for real-time settlement.

First also plans to enter the European market, Mr. Pek said.

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