Internet-only Utility debuts

In a merger of utility deregulation and electronic commerce, the first Internet-only electric utility company debuts this week in California.

Utility.com at http://www.utility.com/ is financially backed by Idea Labs, whose Internet success stories include EToys.com and Tickets.com.

Unlike other electric utility sites on the Web, Utility.com will be the first to go beyond providing rate data and other information, and will let residential customers in deregulated markets sign up and buy electricity over the Web.

Once signed up, customers also will have access to a range of other Web-based capabilities, including remotely controlling home thermostats, receiving and paying electric bills electronically and, eventually, controlling other home-based electronic devices, such as security systems. The company is already accepting orders, although its "grand opening" is slated for May 1.

"The real difference between us and other companies is that we started from the beginning with the Internet as the underlying technology for the company," said CEO Chris King. "The idea is to build the whole business around the Internet."

Bricks and mortar electric utilities have launched Web sites for customers, particularly in deregulated markets, such as California and Pennsylvania. But so far, none of those sites have been particularly user-friendly, according to Tom La Berge, a utilities market analyst at Meta Group.

"The big problem with most of the sites is they haven't had a customer focus or ease of use as their main points," La Berge said. "They're not designed the way a commercial retail site is designed, such that customers can come in and personalise things and the site remembers who they are." That is where EToys' experience could come in handy for Utility.com, he said.

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