Electronic billing taking off in Asia

The days when the excuse 'the cheque is in the mail' could be used to appease creditors may soon be over with adoption of electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) expected to take off in Asia.

          The days when the excuse "the cheque is in the mail" could be used to appease creditors may soon be over with adoption of electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) expected to take off in Asia.

          According to analysts at International Data Corporation (IDC)., EBPP application and transaction revenue in Asia-Pacific is expected to grow from $US2 million in 1999 to $US145 million in 2004.

          In Hong Kong, banking consortium Joint Electronic Teller Service (Jetco) and several local telecom companies have come together with US-based EPBB applications provider Avolent and local service provider Asia Financial Network (AFN) - a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based iMerchants -- to provide electronic billing to Jetco customers.

          The proliferation of web devices in Asia has made the region a fertile ground for electronic billing and payment services, says Avolent president and chief executive officer Douglas Thompson.

          "With distribution technology having just boomed, I think more and more people are getting online, (and) they don't necessarily (only) think on their PCs," Thompson says. "(For example), they can pay their bills while waiting for a train."

          According to Thompson, Asia has the benefit of skipping the learning curve the US experienced when it first introduced electronic billing about four years ago, which he says included decisions on pricing as well as defining a transaction standard. He says Avolent has invested in excess of $US50 million to build its EPBB infrastructure, an expense that local companies working with Avolent will be spared.

          However, Thompson adds that although a hefty initial investment will be necessary to use EBPP, the benefits in the long term would be worthwhile.

          "The average transaction fee for (an electronic) consumer bill is between $US0.20 and $US0.45," he says. "The same thing for a paper bill is between $US1 and $US2.50, (so) even though it's an investment, (companies) are saving significant amounts on incremental costs on (printing bills)."

          "We don't think just presenting bills is enough," says Edward Un, chief technology officer at AFN, the service bureau that allows billers to present bills to their customers. Un adds that AFN would add customer care applications to the basic EBPP platform.

          Online services, such as dispute resolution, trouble ticket management, and account management applications, are planned to be released in the first quarter of next year, AFN officials say.

          Although Asia is well poised for electronic billing, more education may be necessary to increase the rate of adoption, says Un.

          "We want to focus on (EBPP) adoption on the whole, not just market share," Un says, adding that helping billers and banks increase adoption will also reap benefits for the electronic billing providers.

          AFN also has expansion plans. The company intends to bring electronic billing to China, Singapore, and Taiwan, building on its Hong Kong service. Un says that with partners such as Jetco, AFN can be seen as "more credible" when it signs up other regional partners in the future. He did not provide details on the timing of AFN's EBPP scheduled rollout for the rest of Asia.

          Once the EPBB service gets underway, business-to-business (B2B) payment transactions will probably be introduced, perhaps as early as next year, company officials say, adding that AFN's partners already are asking how they can offer such services to corporate customers.

          Turning to industry standards where electronic billing is concerned, Thompson says that Avolent doesn't get to choose the standards itself.

          "We don't determine which standards (are used on our own)," he says. "We work with the standards committees and we try to unify the committees around certain basic things that need to be provided for bill presentment and payment."

          He adds that once a standard starts emerging, Avolent promulgates it, promotes it and writes software for it. Currently, OFX and IFX are used as electronic billing standards, although interoperability remains the key factor in making sure standards are continuous and work with each other, Thompson says.

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