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Princeton eCom Joins Online-Bill Field

Another suitor is joining the increasingly crowded field of billing-services vendors: Princeton eCom Corp.-a veteran of bill paying and presentment online for the wireless, insurance and utility industries-is now soliciting customers in the video arena.

Unlike some companies that offer presentment only to be added to local system Web sites, Princeton eCom will set up actual one-click-payment sites for cable-system customers with currently available software.

Operators pay small setup fees, then further costs are assessed on a per-use basis. Operators are not charged, nor are subscribers, if homeowners call up the page to look at bills.

Analyst Paul Hughes, director of billing and payment applications and strategies for The Yankee Group, said utilities and competitive local-exchange carriers are the earliest adopters of e-billing. Further, those that have launched e-billing believe the service to be a retention strategy.

High-end customers-those most likely to subscribe to digital cable, to buy a personal recorder service or to own personal digital equipment-make up 17 percent of the population, Hughes said. Surveys show that these customers use or are open to an e-billing option, he added.

Further, these subscribers are more likely to be consistent payers, so adding an e-billing option shouldn't, in theory, increase bad debt, executives said, responding to operators at a pitch meeting at the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing's CTAM Summit in Boston last month.

To demonstrate the point, Princeton eCom senior vice president and chief financial officer Chris Sugden noted that client Verizon Wireless converted 100,000 of its customers to online payment in the nine months since it launched the bill-paying option. Also, many clients are able to quickly convert to paperless transactions with those customers, he indicated.

Current customers send duplicate paper and e-bill notices for one or two months, then convert to e-bill only. Customers can access a six-month archive of past bills online or request older bills through the cable company. Ideally, they would print out statements from the Web for their own records when they pay online.

Given the reactions by operators during the pitch in Boston, interest in e-billing is high, but there are many options.

One cable-operator executive indicated that his company has met with a vendor that suggests development of local Web sites that allow bill paying and cross-promotion among multiple industries. But an operator's brand can be diluted through partnership.

Another hurdle to e-billing is legacy billing systems. There have already been skirmishes between classic billing providers that are also developing online payment options, operators and potential competitors about exactly who owns the data.

Princeton eCom noted that consumer surveys indicated acceptance of online bill paying, and executives hope those data will compel operators to move into the arena quickly with a product that's ready now, and not in beta-test.