THE scheduled March launch of Tradelink, the much-delayed electronic document trade service partially owned by the Hong Kong Government, could be set back yet again. Simon Clenell, Tradelink's communication manager, said that parts of the EDI (electronic data interchange) system - including the billing and payment features - were not 'fully in place'. That could delay Tradelink's tentative March rollout, when a control group of 50 textile firms were to start filling in an electronic version of the Government's textile export licence. 'In two to three weeks' time, after we talk to the Government, we'll have a better idea,' Mr Clenell said. Commercial providers of EDI - which promises to cut costs for businesses by reducing paperwork and speeding up transactions - claim that every delay in implementing EDI means millions of dollars lost. 'The exchange of paper documents costs the territory HK$77 billion, or five per cent, of total trade a year,' said Lloyd Sanford, director of CargoNet, a commercial EDI provider which launched last September. Tradelink, which is 48 per cent owned by the Government, has been criticised in the past for expending much effort with little result. The semi-private body has spent more than $200 million since it began planning in 1988. Critics bemoan what they see as a lack of will on the Hong Kong Government's part. 'There isn't a Government mandate for EDI such as exists in Singapore, Australia and Taiwan,' Mr Sanford said. The delays in bringing Tradelink to market 'have been a wonderful excuse for companies to delay switching over to EDI', said John Sanders, EDI consultant and owner of the EDI Shop. Mr Clenell said the logistics of converting a major institution like the Hong Kong Government to EDI were more formidable than those that faced a commercial provider. Mr Clenell did not say when the general introduction of Tradelink would be, if the trial run is delayed. For its part, the Hong Kong Government claims it is ready to begin Tradelink but 'hasn't committed to a start-up date', said Patrick Chung, the government's EDI co-ordinator. Mr Chung said whether Tradelink began in March would be a joint decision between Tradelink and the Government. Tradelink is scheduled to be ready for general users in September. At that time, all textile exporters will stop writing paper versions of the Restraint Textile Export Licence (RTEL) and instead fill in electronic forms on the computer screen. The information is sent and received over telephone lines. Mr Sanders said EDI could help reduce transaction costs - an ever-increasing percentage of every company's business - even as the actual costs of building or producing an item shrink or remain stable. The cost savings from EDI ranged from US$1.60 to US$5.20 per document in 1994, according to the American trade magazine, EDI World. Tradelink would electronically handle all of the Government's trade-related paperwork within five years of its introduction, Mr Clenell said. About 90,000 companies will use Tradelink by 2001. Mr Clenell agreed that the Government should be involved in leading the way towards EDI. 'So much paperwork is government-related, there's no point in moving to EDI if the government is in paper,' he said. But Mr Sanford advocates the formation of a representative body pulling together Tradelink and the commercial EDI providers like CargoNet and EZ*Trade. 'Tradelink alone can't take that leadership role,' he said.