Wells Fargo, Visa Test Pay-by-Phone

Mobile payments and banking are now moving into the U.S. through some big names, but the speedy checkout system is slow to put in place.

Visa U.S.A. Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. have finished the first phase of a trial of in-person mobile coupons, payment by phone, and over-the-air account management, the companies said Wednesday. They ran that test inside Wells Fargo's Customer Experience Research Lab, and the next step, starting in the next few months, will involve 30 to 50 Wells Fargo employees in the real world. Only after that second phase will the partners sign up actual consumers for a test. That third phase, involving 300 to 500 holders of Wells Fargo Visa cards, is scheduled for the fourth quarter of this year.

Some U.S. consumers, including Wells Fargo customers, are already using their mobile phones for banking tasks such as checking account information and transferring funds. In-person payments by mobile phone, already popular in Japan and strongly backed by Finland's Nokia Corp., have taken longer to reach the U.S. The payments require a specially equipped phone and a payment device located in a store, restaurant, stadium or transit turnstile.

Wells Fargo and Visa, like Nokia, plan to use NFC (near field communications), though a different system is used by pioneer NTT DoCoMo Inc. in Japan. NFC is based on RFID (radio frequency identification) and can communicate over a few centimeters, or users can just tap the phone against the payment device. At the heart of the system is downloadable client software developed by Visa, which is already in use in South Korea, according to Peter Ho, a vice president and product manager at Wells Fargo.

The trials by Visa and Wells Fargo go beyond just tap payments. In the second phase of testing, the Wells Fargo employees will be able to receive, store and redeem mobile coupons, monitor their credit or debit account activity and manage their funds on the phone. They will make NFC payments at merchants equipped for Visa's payWave system, which today lets consumers wave their Visa cards in front of a secure reader. It's the first system in the U.S. to combine mobile banking and payments, Ho said.

"The customer is going to expect to be able to do both," Ho said.

The consumer experience only needs to be fine-tuned and Wells Fargo and Visa are enthusiastic about the technology, according to Ho. It's the business model that needs to be worked out, he said. For one thing, no mobile operator yet offers an NFC handset to its subscribers, the typical way U.S. consumers get their phones, he said. The two partners are talking with carriers and with providers of mobile payment infrastructure to set up a system that's attractive to all, he said. Ho would not speculate when all those pieces will come together in a commercial service.

Competing technologies are holding back phone payments, according to In-Stat analyst David Chamberlain. Everyone involved wants to know they won't be stranded with a system others aren't using.

In addition to NFC, some companies are advocating the use of text messages or barcodes generated on the phone, Chamberlain said. The best thing Visa could do would be to convince one of its own competitors to also use NFC, he said.

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