Just Put It on the Bill

Two billing service providers have staked out turf on opposite coasts and opposite ends of the customer continuum.

Two billing service providers have staked out turf on opposite coasts and opposite ends of the customer continuum.

San Jose-based eBillit focuses on the smallest customers: households without credit cards, and consumers who wont entrust their credit-card numbers to the Internet.

Inforonics of Littleton, Mass., focuses on the largest customers: corporations that want to combine the ease of purchasing cards with the depth of detailed invoice information.

Most credit-card transactions are processed at Level 1, which passes the transaction date and total along with identifying information about the merchant —business name and location — and customer — card number and expiration date. Level 2 breaks out taxes as a separate line, and Level 3 brings the itemized price-and-item detail all the way from the merchants systems to the credit-card bill.

Inforonics had the Level 3 market to itself until late 1999. Now, VeriSign and PaylinX also offer Level 3 services. Scott Gray, Inforonics manager of software development, thinks that merchant acceptance of the broader standard is key to wider acceptance of electronic payment among corporations and consumers alike.

"All the line item detail is being lost in the shuffle," Gray says.

EBillit offers its PhoneBill payment platform as a way for providers to sign up customers who wont or cant use credit cards.

A unit of Integretel, which pioneered third-party billing for dial-around long-distance companies, eBillit functions as a service bureau. It passes charges from Internet service, content or commerce providers to its network of more than 1,400 local carriers.

Customers names, addresses and creditworthiness are verified against Integretels database. The charges — for example, $2 for a music file, $200 for concert tickets — show up on the monthly phone bill.

Don Teague, vice president of sales and marketing at eBillit, says motivation to keep the phone service turned on makes the bill "highly collectible."

Additional products from eBillit include pay- ment by direct bill, by credit card, through a Web site or by means of an automated clearinghouse. However, the PhoneBill product shows unusual promise.

The fastest-growing demographic of Internet users is the sub-$45,000 household. And U.S. Census Bureau data show that one-third of U.S. households dont use credit cards, but 94 percent of them have telephone service.