• Technology
  • The Economist

A Cash Call

Smart cards and mobile phones are quickly emerging as ways to pay with electronic cash.

Some of the hottest nightclubs have a new trick for checking the identity of their VIP guests: they send an entry pass in the form of a super barcode to their mobile phones. This is scanned by the large gentleman who lifts the velvet rope. Even those who must pay to get in may need their handsets: at a recent clubbers’ night at London’s Ministry of Sound, students were offered discounts if they used their mobile phones to buy electronic tickets.

Mobile phones are becoming an increasingly popular way to make all sorts of payments. In America fans of the Atlanta Hawks have been testing specially adapted Nokia handsets linked to their Visa cards to enter their local stadium and to buy refreshments. Elsewhere schemes are more advanced. You can already pass the day in Austria without carrying cash, credit or debit cards by paying for everything, including consumer goods, with a mobile phone, says Arthur D. Little, a firm of management consultants. It reckons worldwide payments using mobile phones will climb from just $3.2 billion in 2003 to more than $37 billion by 2008.

Mobiles are used to buy lots of things in Asia. Earlier this month Visa and SK Telecom, South Korea’s leading mobile company, announced the commercial launch of a phone-payments system aimed initially at 30,000 subscribers. In Japan hundreds of thousands of transactions, from buying railway tickets to picking up groceries, already take place every day with customers passing their handsets across a device like that pictured above. Payments are confirmed with a sound like the bell of an old cash register.

Sending Money Home

More banking services are also being offered on mobiles. On February 12th, 19 telephone operators with networks in over 100 countries said that people would be able to use their handsets to send money abroad. MasterCard will operate the system in which remittances will be sent as text messages. For people without bank accounts, the credit can be converted into pre-paid cards which can then be used to buy things. “It will revolutionise the money-transfer business,” said Sunil Bharti Mittal, boss of Bharti Airtel, one of India’s biggest mobile operators. The idea is to tap into the more than $250 billion a year that immigrants and migrant workers send to relatives and friends back home.

Britain’s Vodafone and America’s Citigroup are also launching an international money-transfer service developed from the M-PESA remittance service which is already operating successfully within Kenya. Sir John Bond, formerly chairman of the HSBC banking group and now chairman of Vodafone, has long been convinced that payments and mobiles would somehow converge. “Mobile phones have the ability to make a dramatic change to village life in Africa,” he says.

He also thinks phones loaded with credit will make many of the payments people use cash for in rich economies. For banks with high infrastructure costs, says Sir John, it has always “been hard to make money out of small payments”. But lower-cost business models, some of them from developing countries, are opening up new opportunities. The big attraction of the mobile phone as a purse is that so many people have them — even children.


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