Wireless Banking Coming This Summer

FRAMINGHAM (07/10/2000) - While online brokerages began offering customers wireless access as long as three years ago, banks have been slow to enable customers to use mobile phones and personal digital assistants for bill payments, balance inquiries and other services. But that's set to change this summer, as banks begin to roll out wireless access to their online services.

Chicago-based Harris Bankcorp Inc. is the first out of the gate with this week's rollout of its online bmanx services. Harris is a subsidiary of Bank of Montreal, which has been offering wireless banking in Canada through Toronto-based 724 Solutions Inc. since March of last year.

According to 724 Solutions spokesman Ray McManus, Bank of Montreal has launched a major marketing campaign for its service, Veev, which is available in both French and English.

Two more 724 Solutions customers, Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc., will launch their online services later this summer. Wells Fargo & Co., another 724 customer, will also offer wireless access but hasn't yet announced a starting date.

Clarity Bank and Mexico City-based BBVA Bancomer plan to offer wireless services in the third quarter of this year, also through 724 Solutions.

Bancomer's service will be in both Spanish and English.

The trend is accelerating, analysts said.

"Most of the banking vendors out there have announced some wireless arrangement, and so have a lot of the aggregation firms," said Brooke Newcomb, an online banking analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wachovia Corp., for example, will begin a pilot project in the next few weeks, according to Lawrence Baxter, the bank's head of e-business.

"The actual consumer adoption rate of mobile devices is escalating," said Baxter, explaining why the bank decided to jump to wireless now. "And (wireless access) will greatly exceed (access by PCs) in the next couple of years," he said.

It took Wachovia about nine months of analysis, negotiations and due diligence to get to this point, he said.

"The actual development work will probably take another few weeks, and after that it's just a matter of adding support and scale as usage increases," he said.

Some customers have asked for wireless banking, he said.

"But this is driven not so much by immediate customer demand as by our anticipation of customer demand," he said. "Our whole Internet thrust has always been somewhat ahead of customer demand."

As a result, Wachovia's online banking rate is 20% for retail customers, the highest in the industry, according to an April report by New York-based Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc.

Wachovia will initially offer a limited inquiries service for its retail customers and then will expand the service to include bill paying and other transactions, Baxter said. Commercial customers will also have online access to their accounts.

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