Utilities will embrace Cyberspace by 2003

The Internet could make queuing in the gas showroom a thing of the past, according to a new survey from Datamonitor.

Customers could be paying gas, electricity and other utility bills over the Net by the year 2003, with 75 percent of European utilities providing online services, Datamonitor analysts found. In addition to billing, fault reporting and tendering services will also be conducted over the Web. And the survey predicts governments across the world will increasingly look to the Internet to provide a conduit for social security transactions.

Whilst the public would benefit from improved customer services, utility companies would be able to capture customer information and save money be cutting expensive call centre agents out of the eqaution, the survey found.

Today, few suppliers use Internet-based services, although in the UK and Scandinavia customers can use the Net to send e-mail queries. A handful of utilities have a ‘call me' button on their Web site for arranging for meter readings, but few allow customers to access account and billing details online.

Datamonitor analyst Michael Evason believes online billing is just around the corner. "It is not technology which is holding back the development of these services -- the whole e-billing market is awaiting the necessary payment infrastructure to transform the potential into reality," he said.

British Gas has a Web site which allows customers to give meter readings over the Net. A spokesman for the company admitted the technology is not yet ready for a full range of services. "Our plans are not yet well advanced and there are still security issues and we are waiting to see how that resolves itself. Having said that, things happen very quickly on the Web and three years is a long way away."