First Union Corp. claimed a first on Thursday when it began letting customers receive and pay utility bills through its Web site.

Working with Checkfree Corp., First Union is presenting bills from BellSouth Telecommunications Inc. and Florida Power and Light Co. to customers who request them.

A few other financial institutions are offering bill presentment and payment capabilities, but in pilot programs.

First Union is "the first bank we are working with to make it available to the general public," said Checkfree spokeswoman Laurinda I. Wilson.

Edgar Brown, senior vice president of remote banking at First Union, said he expects this service to grow three times faster than other new services did.

"In the focus groups we have conducted, every one of our customers told us that bill presentment is very high on the list of transactions they would like provided via a Web site," said Mr. Brown. "There are a lot of customer expectations about being able to have bills" over the Internet.

Participating billers transmit electronic data interchange invoices to Checkfree, which passes along a summary of the billing information to First Union. The bank presents color versions of these summaries to consumers over its Web site, while the full bill remains on Checkfree's host system. Consumers are identified through a proprietary authentication system.

Payment information is transmitted back to the billers and their financial institutions through Checkfree. Billers pay Checkfree 34 cents for each bill presented and paid; 10% of that goes to First Union, the Checkfree spokeswoman said.

This method of bill presentment may be short-lived, though. "By sending the bill to Checkfree, we lose the ability to interact with our customers on a monthly basis," said Klaus P. Werner, marketing manager for BellSouth.

"But right now, it is important to give customers the ability to pay on- line. By next year we will regain control."

Florida Power and Light likes the idea of a large institution acting as a bill presenter, said Jill J. Sands, project manager, electronic billing. "With a financial institution such as First Union participating, it will give customers a sense that their bank is endorsing the product," she said.

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