FleetBoston Offers Virtual Safe-Deposit Boxes

Online bill payments, wireless banking capabilities and other new Internet-based technologies already give financial institutions jockeying for position online plenty to worry about. Now, FleetBoston Financial Corp. is raising the bar another notch when it comes to online banking services by adding a new feature: virtual safe-deposit boxes.

FleetBoston Tuesday announced plans to launch a new system that will let users store important electronic documents in password-protected accounts at the Boston-based bank. The FileTrust service is scheduled to be launched at the end of next month in a pilot project aimed at small businesses.

The rollout of FileTrust is related to the new federal law that went into effect Oct. 1 giving legal weight to digital signatures and to storage of business documents in electronic form. FleetBoston officials said they expect companies to soon have large collections of legal, tax-related and other documents that need to be kept online in a secure location.

Users will be able to rent space on the FileTrust system and upload or download files via the Web, using a personal identification number and a password to gain access to documents, the bank said. Companies will also be able to set up guest access privileges for letting other users view specific files that are stored in their allotted areas of the system.

The proprietary system is being developed by FleetBoston with help from Microsoft Corp.'s storage consulting unit and uses technology from EMC Corp., Compaq Computer Corp. and other vendors. Blaise Heltai, managing director of global Internet strategy at FleetBoston, said FileTrust is being integrated with Microsoft's Exchange software, giving users access to filesharing, scheduling and other collaboration tools.

FleetBoston itself is already using the FileTrust system "considerably" in its internal operations, Heltai said. After the pilot project is completed, he added, the service is due to be extended to individual customers of the bank early next year. Large companies will also be able to install customized versions of the technology.

The cost for electronic lockboxes used by small businesses and individual customers will range from zero to $10 per month, depending on the features required and on their existing business relationship with the bank. Heltai said FleetBoston also plans to offer add-on services such as authorization of digital signatures and electronic notarization in the future.

Paul Jamieson, an analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass., said he doesn't expect there to be a huge amount of demand for digital lockboxes such as the ones being offered by FleetBoston, at least initially. Some smaller companies already provide similar services but haven't gotten a lot of takers, he noted.

But Jamieson said other major banks are likely to follow FleetBoston's lead, even if virtual safe-deposit boxes aren't a top business priority for them. Capabilities such as person-to-person payment systems and easy-to-use Web sites are more important, he said. "But having said that, there isn't really any great effort that has to be done to offer this kind of feature," Jamieson said.

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