Bell to introduce on-line paymentBell to introduce on-line payment

Canada’s largest telephone company wants to suppress your phone bill.

No, Bell Canada is not offering free phone services for customers across the country. Rather, the 119-year-old communications provider – which boasts a workforce of 39,000 employees and offers communication services to more than eight million residences and businesses in Ontario and Quebec – is offering to do away with issuing its customers paper bills each month, suggesting instead an on-line bill presentment and payment scheme. The program will be officially launched in late 2000.

That’s exciting news for Bell and its customers – unless of course you don’t own a home computer or you work for Canada Post. However, the phone company is not planning on dragging opponents to the plan kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Residents of Ontario and Quebec will be given a choice of receiving their monthly charges on-line or on paper.

“Currently, our customers can access our debit enrolment feature, enabling them to pay (bills) through their bank account,” said Bill Garbarino, Bell’s vice-president of electronic services in Toronto. “On-line payment is the next phase in the program.”

Garbarino estimated 10,000 customers have already subscribed, even though the program has not officially been launched. He added that number is growing by close to 1,500 new subscribers per month.

While Bell has not yet assessed the per-bill dollar savings that may come with on-line presentment and payment, Garbarino said any savings Bell accrues from eliminating paper billing will eventually be passed onto the customer through improved services.

Bell partnered with e-route inc., a company owned collectively by six Canadian financial institutions, to bring the concept to fruition. It’s through this service that Bell customers will be able to access their bills through the Web banking option at an e-route member institution and transfer payments from an on-line bank account to their billing accounts instantly. Notable institutions that are missing-in-action include the Bank of Montreal and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Neither are included at this stage in Bell’s scheme.

“The Bank of Montreal partnered with (Canada Post Corp.’s on-line service), a competing model, while the Bank of Nova Scotia is waiting at this point,” Garbarino said.

On-line, a bill can include hot links to a current sale or promotion, offer access to customer account information or link the user to other products the company offers. And that’s where the real advantage of on-line billing lies.

“Canadian companies are a good six months behind the times, compared to those in the U.S.,” said Ray Simonson, president of BlueGill Technology Corp. in Waterloo, Ont. “Even though there are a lot of Canadian companies on the Internet, [on-line billing is] hotter in the U.S.”

BlueGill sells software that Internet-enables billing. To date, the company has serviced 52 companies in North America with its Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment (EBPP) software. Four of those 52 companies are Canadian.

Simonson criticized Bell’s Bill Presentment option. He said the phone company’s customers are better off receiving their monthly bill using the traditional method – via Canada Post.

“On-line billing should be interactive…Bell’s current method is such that you can look at the bill but you can’t pay it,” he said. “You have to take the bill off-line, print it out on your computer, tear off the bottom sheet and mail it in…it’s better to respond to it by (traditional) mail. Bell’s way costs the customer more money because [the customer] has to supply the envelope.”

Should on-line billing become the status quo – something Simonson considers an eventuality – snail mail could indeed be in for a rough ride.

But according to spokesperson Rheal Le Blanc, Canada Post Corp. will not be vexed as it will officially launch a similar initiative this summer with its Electronic Post Office (EPO).

“Our EPO is very different from other free e-mail services,” Le Blanc insisted. “In EPO, you will be able to receive all sorts of mail at one point of access…each delivery will have a digital postmark ensuring total security…and with EPO you will have the opportunity to not only pay your bills electronically, but eventually (you will be able to receive) flyers, catalogues, all the things you receive in traditional mail.”

EPO is free to subscribe to, regardless of whether or not you own a computer, and can effectively deliver its consignees their bills as specified. However, Bell Canada is not among the list of participating companies EPO can service. Only participating companies can be accessed by the subscriber.

“I don’t think Bell is at the moment available (through EPO),” Le Blanc admitted. “We’re currently working with several companies who have expressed an interest in our services. Any new service…takes time to evolve. We can’t force anyone to use our service.”

Le Blanc’s view on the future of on-line billing is one of mixed emotions.

“Certainly this (consumer demand) is one reason we’re getting into this service,” he explained. “Our letter volume right now is stable and should remain so for the next three or four years. In five years, we expect it to go down dramatically, so we couldn’t just stand by the wayside.”

To Simonson, the writing is on the wall.

“The acceptance rate (of on-line billing) will be about 50 per cent in three to five years,” he predicted. “Canada Post is trying to get a piece of the market with their EPO, but I think this is going to knock first class mail hard…it’s going to kick the hell out of it.”