Will Ops Opt for This?

Will cable operators jump at the chance to underbid their competition for their best customers? That's what a little business in Durham, N.C., is hoping.

The new company, Zingbill, will partner with existing banking sites to allow third parties, including cable operators and utilities, to anonymously view consumer bills and see if they would like to bid for their business.

The concept sounds a bit like priceline.com Inc., the online-sales business that was recently the target of an investment by Paul Allen and Liberty Media Group. But Zingbill founder John Teer said his service differs: It's not a destination site.

"We don't want to be a dot-com," he said. "We're an integrated part of the online bill-paying experience. People will think they're at a bank's bill-paying system."

Zingbill has completed its first round of financing, attracting $1 million from private investors in its home state. It is close to opening its second round. The company's 12-member board includes current and former banking executives.

It already has an alliance with Netzee Inc. of Atlanta. That Internet-banking and bill-paying service has contracts with 500 banks.

Zingbill and competitors such as LowerMyBills.com Inc. have popped up to help companies take advantage of the surge in online bill paying. Teer said statistics indicated that fewer than 10 million people pay their bills online now, but that total is expected to peak at 35 million by 2003.

Utilizing other industries' established sites could cut the cost of customer acquisition to one-tenth of current levels, Teer added.

Here's how it works: A consumer goes to his or her bank site to pay bills. The customer can choose to opt in, allowing bills for services such as Internet, video, telephone or power to be shown with product detail, but without the consumer's identity.

Participating industries can log on and decide whether to make a bid for the consumer, presumably offering a lower rate or better features than those the consumer currently experiences. The incumbent can also log on in an attempt to better the competitor's offer.

When the consumer accesses the site again, he or she can decide whether to take any new offer.

Service companies pay Zingbill a "low monthly access fee," Teer said, which would be waived for the first six months. Also, businesses will pay an acceptance fee for customers they capture.