Consumers who think that long-distance telemarketers and ISP spammers really have no good reason to live may soon find hope in a new breed of Internet service portals which want to simplify the confusion of deregulation by offering a single point of contact for purchasing essential services of all kinds
Burlington, Mass., start-up Essential.Com has waded into this fray with an ambitious service that aims to sell local and long distance telephone, electricity, gas, Internet access, wireless communication and even satellite television, propane and heating oil.
Originally launched in 1995 as Wholesale Telecom and Electric by founders Akhil Garland and Patrick Moran, Essential.com passed through one cyberversion — etility.com — before launching the current iteration in June of this year.
Essential.com offers customers the ability to compare rates for various services then to purchase the services through them and have all the billing and payment done through the site’s unified online system. Company spokesman Joe Palladino said that before a bill is due, customers get an email containing a link to their bill.
Once online, customers can review the charges then decide when to pay the bill using the checking account or credit card with which they registered their account. Giving the customer control over payment timing (as opposed to automatic deductions) means they can make sure they have sufficient funds to cover the charge.
Customers can also dispute charges — such as specific phone charges — by simply checking the box next to it which removes it from that bill’s total due. Essential.com then handles the dispute resolution, which means that regardless of which services are purchased, the customer has to deal with only one point of contact.
Customers pay nothing extra for the services to Essential.com which makes its money from an ongoing commission from the service providers which varies widely, but averages 21 percent according to Palladino.
Originally financed with “a stack of credit cards” belonging to co-founder Garland, Essential.com received major VC support this year: Brand Equity Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, EnerTech Capital Partners and ComDisco Ventures have invested approximately $20 million in Essential.com in two rounds that closed in April and August. The company has also received technology development support from the Gas Research Institute.
Yankee Group analyst Brad Bradshaw said he felt Essential.com would eventually need to evolve to private labeling of the services offered, and stressed that long-term success would depend on the company making a percentage of every month’s charges rather than a one-time sign-up bonus which many sites offer and which encourage churn.
Essential.com’s nascent site offers a tantalizing glimpse into the future. While VC Watch found little other than telecom offered in its area (north of San Francisco), the company said it is working feverishly to populate its service offerings in every area. In places where the company does not yet offer services, users who leave their e-mail address behind will get a $25 discount if and when that service is available.
Confusion seems to be the most prominent effect of utility deregulation, which remains a work in progress. The situation can only get worse as more and more services enter the deregulation swamp. Hassled consumers can only hope that companies like Essential.com will finally cut off the air supply to the telemarketing locusts who spam and slam their way through America’s dinner hour.
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