Electronic banking is one of those ideas that sound great. Having money deposited without a hike to the bank, checking a balance from home, paying bills in the dead of night -- all sound very appealing.
But the full flowering of such a system has been slower than many technology experts expected. Only about 2 percent of consumers pay any of their bills using a personal computer, according to one recent survey, suggesting that the cost, reliability and convenience of online bill payment are not yet tempting enough to knock off the long-established method of getting a bill and mailing a check.
What's been missing, many experts say, is what is known in the business as online "presentment" of bills. Presentment is the method by which a business distributes bills to customers, and today the main method is through the U.S. Postal Service.
The online bill-payment market, such as it is at this point, is dominated by CheckFree Corp., though some banks offer the service and there are Internet firms vying for a piece of the action. There are various approaches, either operating or proposed. In some cases, bills appear on a World Wide Web site operated by the biller, your bank or a third party. In more advanced models, consumers might receive their bills via e-mail.
Consumers who have tried these services generally give them favorable reviews. But overall, banks have been slow to move into this area.
Last week, though, three of the biggest -- Chase Manhattan Corp., First Union Corp. and Wells Fargo and Co. -- announced that they are forming a company that will allow both individuals and businesses to send bills and receive payments over the Internet.
The banks' goal "is to jump-start the whole industry of electronic bill presentment and payment," said First Union Vice President Lou Anne Alexander. "We want to make electronic bill payment a reality for the average American . . . as common as cell phones are today.
"This market is maturing, but at a slow rate," Alexander added. "We banks all are investing lots of money [in electronic systems], and the faster we can accelerate consumer acceptance of this, the better off we'll be."
This is of interest to consumers because the movement of big players into this market could well drive costs down and convenience up, while offering real savings to consumers and businesses in postage, check printing and check processing. Bankers believe that if this works, it will be the catalyst that will finally move online banking out of its niche role and onto center stage.
"Bill presentment is a killer application for online banking," said John Hall of the American Bankers Association. "If you can receive and pay your bills in one fell swoop, that should be the convenience the customers are looking for."
Alexander noted that today the average consumer receives 12 to 15 bills a month but, because of various restraints, is able to pay only three to five electronically.
"If you have to go online to pay three bills but have to sit down [and write checks] to pay the other eight," that's not very convenient, she said. "We want to change that ratio so most of your bills you can receive and pay online," which in turn will "change your behavior."
One very interested onlooker is, of course, the Postal Service, which derives about $8 billion a year from bill presentation and payment from businesses to households and back, according to estimates by the U.S. Postal Rate Commission, the service's regulator.
In fact, USPS data show that bill payment by households through the mail has been declining at close to 6 percent annually, indicating that consumers are switching to alternatives, such as paying in person, by telephone or through electronic direct payment.
Bill presentment, however, has been climbing by about 1 percent a year, indicating that businesses have not been able to find a better way to get bills out to customers.
The system envisaged by the three big banks would resemble an ATM network, with the new company acting as an interchange to route bills from billers to customers and payments from customers to the billers' banks.
All parties should realize savings, and Alexander said the new company, known for the time being as the Exchange, plans to offer the service to consumers "nearly free" in order to boost acceptance.
She said the Exchange should be in operation before the end of this year.
For consumers, the savings from electronic bill paying come from postage -- 33 cents for every payment not mailed -- and the cost of buying checks, which varies depending on how fancy the checks are.
But Alexander said that "on the consumer side, it's convenience that really is going to be the driver" of acceptance.
Both electronic bill payment and full-scale online banking require a personal computer (and sometimes special software), and they still require you to sit down and actually pay the bills, albeit without worrying about whether you have a stamp.
Largely overlooked in the discussion -- but used by many consumers -- is electronic direct payment, or automatic payment, of bills. This system has been around for decades and is widely touted by utilities and mortgage companies but has expanded in recent years as it has become more flexible and widely available.
With direct payment, you simply authorize any firm that regularly bills you, and is prepared for this method, to take its monthly payment directly out of your bank account. The payments are made automatically each month, so you never have to worry about a late fee, and the service is free.
Of course, you have to have money in the bank, so if you're constantly writing checks and rushing to cover them later, this isn't for you. But if you want to get a bunch of bills paid cheaply and with no hassle, it seems to work well.
Vicki Anderson, assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, uses direct payment for all her bills, ranging from car payments to credit cards, and it leaves her "worry-free."
Anderson said she has to travel for her job, and direct payment ensures that she won't get whacked with a late fee because a bill came while she was gone.
For payments that vary, such as those for credit cards, the biller is required to send a paper statement so you know how much the withdrawal was. And records of all such payments show up on your bank statement.
"There really isn't anything I can't pay using direct payment," Anderson said, noting that last year more than 1 billion direct payments were processed through the banking system.