Community bankers generally accept the idea that there will be Internet activity in their future. The question is just when, and what will it involve.
As last week's column stressed, some, like myself, feel there is no hurry. Some even go so far as to hold that the Internet will eventually be no more than an electronic way to provide the information now provided by newspaper, TV and radio ads, telephone calls and the U.S. mail ("Snail Mail," Internet aficionados call it).
Others say that the value of the Net is available today, and that those who are not utilizing it now may end up at a serious disadvantage.
Having been accused of being like a 1940s or '50s loan officer - who would invariably say, "The answer is 'no'; now, what is the proposition?" - I have tried to dig further into what specific banks are doing that makes the Net so valuable to them.
I went to Natchez, Miss., to visit Britton & Koontz First National Bank. I had been told by Alice Dittman, who leads the Electronic Delivery Steering Committee of the ABA's Community Bankers Council, that this bank had become a local Internet service provider with "great success."
I was impressed. Four hundred people have signed up to access the Internet through the bank (which acknowledges that the selling point is the price - $10 for five free hours a month, and half that much for top checking-account customers).
As for services, they are essentially informational. You can get rates and fees, calculate monthly mortgage payments, and apply for a mortgage by filling out the proper form.
But bill paying, transferring funds, and the other home banking services the computer-oriented individual wants are well in the future.
Moving on, I contacted John Dabek, senior vice president of operations at $2.4 billion-asset Commerce Bancorp of Cherry Hill, N.J. American Banker recently highlighted the bank, which in only five months has attracted almost 11,000 customers, over 5% of its total, to use its home banking network. (Access to the Internet will be available in the fourth quarter .)
I asked Dabek why Commerce has been so successful. His answer, it seemed to me, involved accenting traditional bank values and policies instead of technological breakthroughs.
*The price is right. A customer can hook into the bank's system at no charge for the basic service and only $5 a month for bill payment.
*Instead of using the Internet, you can contact the bank by phone, which adds to security on funds transactions.
*People love to E-mail the bank, and they wait for the response avidly. It is like having a personal banker.
*The bank offers real-time balances, transaction histories, transfers, stop payments, and reordering of checks, and allows customers to ask questions via E-mail, with all accounts accessible in the relationship.
*Finally, the bank does an efficient bill-paying job for the depositors. It has a list of vendors on-line, so customers just enter on their PCs the amount each vendor is to be paid that period. Vendors can be added to the data base on request.
"Will the Internet replace the branch?" I asked Dabek.
Absolutely not, he said. People want to come into the branch. Electronic banking is just another delivery convenience that supports the branch strategy.
Well, this was closer to seeing the solid benefits of the Internet. But most of what Commerce offers has been offered in the past through telephone bill-paying and phone status-response systems.
So as of now, I am still of the opinion that there is no reason why the community bank must rush to join the Internet .
But my mind remains open. And I await your responses to last week's contest for the presidency for a day of Schmidlap National Bank. Tell us how the Internet has been of great value to you; tell us why community bankers should just not wait, letting the leaders bear the cost and problems innovation.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.