ANZ stakes Free Net claim

Ramin Mazbani, principal consultant at www.consult, said the deal is "an e-commerce move" for the company. "It's not really about banking. ANZ realises one of the major sources of money in the world of the Internet economy is the equity market."

Unlike the National Australia Bank (NAB), which has formed a partnership with rival free ISP FreeOnline in an effort to draw more customers to its service, ANZ is not just aiming to gain new Internet banking customers, Mazbani said.

From ANZ's perspective, the deal represents the creation of a "differentiated online service", said Michelle Gibbings, ANZ's media relations manager.

"In terms of the service we provide customers at ANZ.com, in addition to banking we provide access to portals and other sites.

"We think [this deal] will help with growing customers and retaining customers," she said.

However, despite wanting to use the deal to grow its customer base, the service will initially only be offered to select customers via invitation, Gibbings said.

"People can certainly come and talk to us, but we really want to make sure we meet customers' needs so we are offering a phased introduction with selected customers," she said.

Gibbings said the service will initially be offered as a pilot program from mid-February for randomly selected customers in Melbourne and Sydney. It will be extended to Brisbane and Adelaide later. Between 50 and 100 of ANZ's Internet banking and eTrade customers will take part in the pilot, she said.

While the majority of the industry preferred to keep quiet about the deal, Brandon Philips, an NAB spokesman, said his bank can understand why ANZ made the investment. "We obviously understand the benefit in providing this type of service to Internet banking customers," he said.

"We are completely accustomed to competition on all fronts and it looks like it will continue on the Internet front as well."

NAB signed an agreement with FreeOnline in November last year to provide free Net access to its customers. Philips said NAB made a "small equity holding" in the ISP, but would not disclose the size of the stake.

In its deal with Free Net, ANZ also takes up Board representation and has the option to increase its stake to 30 per cent.

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