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Paying by Phone Slowly Coming to the U.S.

Date: 9/4/2009 3:30:39 AM

You can talk, play, surf the web — and now you can pay for stuff with your cellphone. Nokia announced a new mobile payment service Wednesday, called Nokia Money, that will allow consumers to send money, pay bills and recharge pre-paid phone cards–all using their cell phones.

The Nokia Money service is likely to debut in Asia and Africa in early 2010. The company hasn’t commented whether it will offer the service in the U.S.

Mobile payments are a big business in emerging markets where there are more cellphones than a PC, and where many users still don’t have a bank account. But paying by phone hasn’t caught on in the U.S.

“With more than four billion mobile phone users (worldwide) and only 1.6 billion bank accounts, global demand for access to financial services presents a strong opportunity,” says Mary McDowell, an executive vice president for Nokia.

The widespread use of credit and debit cards and easy access to banking services has meant few American customers are clamoring for mobile payments. That’s changing, says Bruce Cundliff, director of payments research and consulting for research firm Javelin Strategy.

“Mobile payments in the U.S. market are still very nascent,” says Cundiff. “But there are a lot of pilot projects that are currently being developed.”

Smartphones are the key to the growth of mobile payments here. The devices are a fast growing segment in the cellphones business, with U.S. sales growing nearly 47 percent in the second quarter. The increased capabilities of these phones mean that they are potential new platforms for commerce. And as handset makers battle for consumer attention through app stores, developers have greater incentives than ever to create services that customers can pay for through their phones.

Though American consumers may have to wait a long time to try Nokia Money there are a few other projects that users can try out. Mobile payment services currently in trials in the U.S. include a project from social networking giant Facebook, banks, and credit card service provider MasterCard. Here’s a quick rundown on some of the mobile payment options available currently to American consumers.

Banking apps: For the last few years, banks have been trying to offer mobile payments as part of their online banking solutions. But now these financial institutions are using smartphone apps as a way to popularize the service. For instance, Bank of America has an iPhone app that lets its customers check their banking accounts, pay bills or transfer funds using their mobile phones. Users can download the app for free through Apple’s app store. Other banks such as Well Fargo and USAA also have iPhone apps available that lets users schedule payments and tranfer money using their accounts. About 26 million users in the U.S. are likely candidates to use mobile payment services, estimates Javelin Strategy. “Mobile payment may finally be ready for prime time,” says Cundiff.

Facebook mobile payments: With more than 200 million users worldwide, Facebook is the most powerful social networking platform today. Facebook users are willing to spend real money to shower their friends and family with virtual gifts. Earlier this month, Facebook started testing the use of mobile payments for its virtual currency, Facebook Credits. Facebook has partnered with mobile payments service provider, Zong, to let users buy Facebook credits using their mobile phone. Users are then billed to their account with the mobile carrier. The service is still in its very early stages and it is more expensive to pay using the mobile phone compared to a credit card. But as more users buy into the idea, Facebook and Zong hope mobile payments will become more competitive.

MasterCard MoneySend: Who doesn’t have a MasterCard in their wallet? MasterCard is now hoping it can achieve that kind of iconic status on the mobile phone. In June, the company launched a mobile payment platform enabling customers to transfer money to another person, and all they need to know is the recipient’s mobile phone number. Currently, customers use the service through a prepaid card issued by The Bancorp Bank and then link it to their mobile phone number to send or receive money. But as more issuers enroll into the program, says MasterCard, mobile phone users will be able to take just about any account and link it to MoneySend. MasterCard is working with Obopay, a Redwood City, California-based startup, that is also powering the Nokia Money service.

Special-purpose smartphone apps: One of the significant announcements from Apple this year was that it would allow developers to charge users for goods and services purchased through their apps. The move could turn out to be an important boost for mobile payments, because it will get people used to the idea of paying for things within special-purpose apps. For instance, the Taxi Magic iPhone app allows users to call a taxi through the app and then pay for the ride using their phone.

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Source: http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/08/pay-by-phone/


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