Cybertalk: Electric firm an easy plug-in on the Internet


Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Cybertalk column by Tim Barmann / The Providence (R.I.) Journal


One of the biggest conveniences we have today, thanks to the Internet, is the ability to look up personal account information on your bank and credit card company from your computer.

The trend of making customer accounts accessible over the Web has moved beyond financial services firms to utility companies.

Verizon Communications, Cox Communications, Valley Resources and Narragansett Electric all say customers can view their bills online, and and in some cases, pay them.

The biggest benefit of online bill viewing is that you can learn things about your charges that would otherwise be impractical or difficult to figure out on your own. For example, some telephone companies offer customers the ability to sort calls by date, length of call, amount of call and phone number.

I tried to access my own accounts with three of the four major utilities that offer online bill viewing in Rhode Island: Verizon, Cox and Narragansett.

What I found was the opposite of what I had expected. The old-fashioned electric company had the best bill viewing service. The technology-inclined telephone and cable companies did a much poorer job.

First, I had trouble even logging on to Cox's Web site. It has a confusing sign-up process that continually told me I was entering wrong information, even though I repeatedly typed in the account information it asked for.

A call to Cox's customer service line didn't help. A representative, located in Arizona, suggested I call Cox@Home, even though that is an Internet access company that has nothing to do with Cox's corporate Web site.

I was eventually able to log on to my online account through the help of a Cox spokeswoman, who quickly patched me through to someone who fixed whatever was broken.

The Cox service was a disappointment. The bill viewing portion was not working last week. (It is being upgraded and should be fixed today, Cox said.) I was able to view past account activity, but that was just a mish-mash of various charges and payments over the past four or five months presented in a less-than-useful way. And there were no sorting or comparision options.

My experience with Verizon's bill viewing service was worse. The company says it provides customers with the ability to sort calls on their bills in a variety of ways. Another feature lets you click on a phone number you called and see who it belongs to.

I never got to try it. After two weeks of log-on attempts, I received only error messages saying to try again later. I finally called Verizon's customer service. A representative had no clue what bill viewing service I was talking about and transferred me to the company's Internet access division. That department has nothing to do with online bill viewing.

James A. Smith, a Verizon spokesman, couldn't explain what the problem was with accessing my account, and said my case was very unusual. The company had received only two or three similar complaints, he said. I suggested Verizon may not be aware of other complaints if customers are mistakenly transfered to the wrong department.

I was impressed with Narragansett Electric's bill viewing service. It was simple to log on, and the information was presented in a straightforward, helpful way.

The site shows your electricity usage and your bill amounts for the past 15 months or so. It's simple to click through the three pages of details.

One of the best features is the ability to see a graph of your electricity usage over time, and how some of your recent bills compare with last year's bills of the same months.

To see the graphs, you need to use a browser that supports Java 1.1 "applets," such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0. My version of Netscape 4.7 wouldn't show the graphs.

I don't have an account with Valley Resources, so I wasn't able to try out its bill viewing service. But a demonstration on the site, which lets you view a pretend customer's account, seemed to work fine. There was also a graph showing past usage that worked with both Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers.

Providence Gas, the state's largest natural gas supplier, will be implementing online bill viewing at some point, according to spokesman Jim Grasso, though he didn't know when. He said there are plans to build a Web-based bill viewing service that would also let gas customers enter repair requests, and even see a picture of the repair person assigned to come to their house.

Of course, there is a downside to this trend of putting personal records online: the increased potential for your privacy to be compromised. It creates the possibility of the wrong person gaining access to information previously unavailable.

Verizon had a major privacy leak in a Web site that allowed customers to request telephone repair service in August. A customer discovered he could use the Web site to learn the name, address and other private information of any Verizon customer, by typing in their phone number. The trick even worked with numbers that were unlisted. Verizon scrambled to fix the problem after it was reported by SecurityFocus.com, a security news Web site.

One approach that Narragansett Electric has taken to help prevent a privacy breech is to not show any identifying information about its customers.

Your name, address and phone number are not shown when you log on. You use your account number and another number from your bill to gain access.

That's one case where I don't mind only being known only as a number.

Timothy C. Barmann covers technology for The Providence (R.I.) Journal. He can be reached at tim@cybertalk.com.