A report from Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. suggests a co-operative e-billing hub for all billers is necessary to spur growth in electronic bill presentment and payment.

Epost and E-route Inc. – Canada’s EBPP duopoly – should refocus their competitive efforts on front-end

services, according to the report from Forrester Research director Ron Shevlin.

E-route president Jim Sallas disagreed.

“”If you were to project going forward that we were going to be in a continuous stalemate with Epost, then, sure,”” Sallas said.

But Epost is “”dead in the water”” in terms of user growth, while E-route is growing its consumer base by seven per cent per month, he said.

“”If we haven’t just passed it, we’re closing in on the 400,000 mark,”” Sallas said. That’s up from 175,000 who had signed up at the company’s launch last March.

Meanwhile, said Sallas, Epost is nowhere near its year-end target of 500,000 users. And according to his analysis, last summer’s aggressive mass media marketing campaign by Epost won over customers at a cost of $100 to $300 a head.

“”We’re aggressive. We’re not blowing our brains out,”” said Peter Melanson, president of Epost. He put the figure at less than $50 a customer, and said the company is looking at another campaign this year.

He agrees with the Forrester assessment – and thinks Epost is a natural to provide that hub. The report refers to a “”trusted, neutral third party,”” which Melanson says Epost offers thanks to its Canada Post heritage.

The Epost difference is the legal protection that its traffic enjoys under the Canada Post Act as a project of the post office, and the fact that users receive more than bills in their e-mail boxes. Epost’s strategy to drive customers to their boxes with relevant content comes down firmly on one side of the chicken-and-egg dilemma that is e-billing – build the customer base, and the billers will come.

E-route’s major advantages are the participation of five of the six major Canadian banks and a stranglehold in Quebec, where companies representing 70 per cent of all bills sent have signed on. Those advantages might disappear in a co-operative hub with all banks and billers signed on.

According to senior research director Matt Olesen with Killen and Associates, there’s not much incentive for either company to create a co-operative hub, given the groundwork they’ve already laid and the fact that both feel they’ve got some traction in the marketplace.

“”They’ve already done the hard part. Why would they turn back now?”” said Olesen.

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