NFC Break Out – VISA/FirstData/AT&T

23 December 2009

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Get set for a major announcement in next 4 weeks from Visa, AT&T and FirstData that will combine an AT&T pre-paid card account, managed by FirstData, and with services from several Visa led start up companies  (both mobile advertising,  couponing and NFC). Consumers will be issued NFC stickers for existing phones and can fund the account with existing card and deposit accounts. AT&T will also have an integrated reward system to reward payment activity with coupons, airtime and special offers with participating merchants. In addition to the NFC sticker, Visa will also be trialing other “other form factors” including: plastic, handset integrated NFC (new phones) and 3rd party hardware for OTA provisioning. FirstData will begin a new role as both the processor and Trusted Service Manager (TSM).

As stated previously, the US market is ripe for a break from the 6 party political “fur ball” that is hampering mobile innovation (Card Issuers, Acquirers, Network, Merchant, MNOs, Handset Mfg). Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are better positioned to execute in mobile payment in all markets. AT&T is no stranger to credit cards, even today the ATT Universal card is the largest affinity card within Citi’s portfolio.  The implications for card issuers are unclear, given the uncertainty of “mobile payment” consumers behavior and payment patterns. There is a storng possibility that this initiative will be a “tipping point” in both mobile commerce, unleashing a new wave of innovation for all consumers (not just iPhone any longer). It will be very interesting to see if Apple is a part of this initiative. 

More to come..  

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For those outside the US, US MNOs have substantial control over handset features and applications, they have been leveraging this “node control” to “influence” direction of payments. The central US MNO argument being “it is our customer, our handset, our network we should get a cut of the transaction rev”. Unfortunately existing inter-bank mobile transfers/ payments are settled through existing payment networks that provide limited flexibility in accommodating another party (beyond issuer/acquirer), with much room for improvement in authorization, authentication and consumer “control”. 

Outside the US, the situation is much different, as consumers have great flexibility in switching MNOs, have ownership of their handsets, and are largely on pre-paid plans. The MNO challenge for payments in this environment is largely regulatory.  Many countries (EU, HK, Korea, Japan, SG) have open well defined rules for MNOs role in payments (example: ECB ELMI framework within the EU), while other countries are highly restrictive and are in the midst of developing their legal and regulatory framework.  Even in the countries where MNOs participation is defined, they have largely benefited from the complimentary role that the service plays with pre-paid plans (not in interchange at POS).

Globally, MNOs are looking for a payment platform where they can benefit from interaction between consumer and merchant, with flexibility to deal with a heterogeneous regulatory environment. The competitive pressures on Visa/MC are much different then they were 5 years ago (when both were bank owned). The network fee structures and rules were written with banks and mature markets in mind. Emerging markets present a much different set of opportunities, as MNOs lead banks in brand and consumer penetration within every geography.

All of this leads to the case for a new “Mobile Payments Settlement” network, a network which will alienate many banks.  I expect to see Visa roll out the initial stages of this network in the next 2 months with an emphasis on NFC. Quite possibly the best kept secret I have ever seen from a public company. I’m sure many Silicon Valley CEOs are crossing their fingers (with me) on this, as a “new wave” of innovation is certainly close at hand that will drive growth (and valuations).

For those not keeping up with the 50 or so product announcements a day on NFC, handset manufacturers committed to have NFC enabled phones to consumers in mid 2009 in the GSMA 2008 congress. NFC capabilities are numerous (Vodafone YouTube Overview), and may represent a true disruptive innovation surrounding payments. There have been many very recent product announcements that will enable existing phones to use NFC, and P2P Capability. All of which will blossom in a more “fertile” mobile settlement environment.

Side note: This is not all bad news for Banks, as the structure will certainly provide for existing cards (debit/credit) and may deliver substantial revenue through cash replacement (small < $50) transactions.  More details on structure of MNO in settlement 2 weeks….

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