Princeton Telecom Corp. has signed Union Electric Co. of St. Louis for its electronic bill presentment system and said it is the first of a Who's Who in the utility industry that will be making similar announcements.
Claiming something of a Rodney Dangerfield status in a field dominated by Checkfree Corp. and its recent high-profile utility signings, Princeton Telecom president Don Licciardello said, "There is a difference between just presenting bills and publishing bills. We are a publisher. We are biller-centric."
In other words, Princeton Telecom sells its system directly to billers, enabling them to bridge the gap between their internal computer systems and the modern client-server technology essential to manage Internet links to personal computers.
Checkfree, the leader in home banking and bill payment processing for financial institutions, has made a splash in recent months with its E-Bill service. It allows customers of, for example, Florida Power and Light Co. to receive bills electronically after enrolling at the Checkfree or FPL Web site. This week Checkfree added Boston Edison, its 17th major biller. Mr. Licciardello said he does not begrudge Checkfree's or anyone else's delivering bills this way, but he said he is more literally and directly in the business of serving utilities and he assures them "postable receivables." That is a guarantee many home banking services cannot make with their "pay anyone" bill payment policies, though the latter have strong consumer appeal.
Gary Craft, the electronic commerce analyst at BancAmerica Robertson Stephens of San Francisco, has said the bill presentment business is divided in two camps. Checkfree along with Intuit Inc., the Microsoft Corp.-First Data Corp. joint venture MSFDC, Electronic Funds & Data Corp., and others he calls "third-party concentrators acting as trusted agents."
Princeton Telecom, a privately held company expanding into Internet services from more conventional payment and telephone-based processing, occupies a niche among what Mr. Craft calls "billing empowerers."
Among the public companies, Mr. Craft is positive about Checkfree. "We believe electronic bill presentment is the killer application and that Checkfree has some chance of winning business due to its sizable subscriber base," the analyst wrote in a recent report.
Mr. Licciardello said despite the growing interest in bill presentment as a potential "killer app" for Internet banking, almost all electronic payments remain telephone-initiated or are debited automatically from bank accounts.
Because it already has several top utilities on a "presentment server," the Princeton, N.J., vendor expects them to rely on its system for the next generation of bill transmission.
Princeton Telecom provides its Electronic Lockbox Service and processes preauthorized and telephone-initiated payments for Union Electric, which has 1.3 million customers in Missouri and Illinois and ranks 39th among utilities on the Fortune 1000 list.
Customers can sign up to see and pay bills on the utility's Web site, www.ue.com. "Now we can offer our customers the opportunity to pay their bills through the Internet-another value-added service that helps us ensure customer satisfaction," said assistant treasurer and manager Donald L. Hollingworth.
Mr. Licciardello tipped off two other bill presenters in his hopper: Southern California Edison and Boston Gas.