U.S. Central Credit Union is taking steps to keep its constituents from getting left in the dust in an increasingly wired world.

The $30 billion-asset wholesale institution, which serves as a sort of central bank for the 11,000 U.S. credit unions, has approved an electronic commerce initiative designed to provide affordable home banking capabilities, including electronic bill presentment and payment.

The services-expected to be fully available by yearend-address what for the many small credit unions can be a prohibitive cost of entry into electronic banking.

"Many banks are positioning themselves to provide a full range of financial service products over the Internet," said Chuck Purvis, senior vice president of electronic commerce, payments, and technology services at U.S. Central in Overland Park, Kan. "Most credit unions are too small to put together a full-service offering on their own. Our objective is to do that in a manner that makes it affordable."

Larger credit unions, such as Navy Federal and Stanford Federal, have been aggressive in offering bill presentment and other technological innovations.

But Mr. Purvis said research shows only 450 of the 11,000 U.S. credit unions have on-line financial offerings. The smaller ones are sometimes deterred by up-front costs ranging from $25,000 to $500,000, he said.

The central initiative "makes an awful lot of sense," said Brook Newcomb, senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "It's clearly lowering the barriers to entry for the smaller credit unions. They obviously give up some things in the process-for example, customization. But it's better to have something than nothing."

Mr. Newcomb said affinity-membership requirements limit the population from which a credit union may accept deposits. That hinders credit unions from rapidly building an Internet customer base large enough to defray the costs of on-line technology.

U.S. Central said it plans to operate a service bureau for the electronic commerce services, which eventually could include financial news and even on-line securities trading through partnerships with brokerages. Member credit unions would be charged based on the number of their members who use the services.

U.S. Central will offer the services through a separately chartered credit union service organization, in which it will hold majority ownership. It envisions offering the 36 corporate credit union owners of U.S. Central additional stakes in the service organization depending on their level of interest.

Many details remain murky, however. Officials at U.S. Central are mum on which technology vendors and potential partners they have interviewed to provide the service.

Mr. Purvis said U.S. Central would not be opposed to multiple partnerships for on-line bill presentment and payment in order to reach as many billers as possible.

Most electronically initiated payments "are still ultimately paid in paper," he said. "It will take all of the parties in the market working together to drive that number down."

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