Wireless Banking Poised to Go Mainstream

If you have ever received a desperate call from someone who needs you to wire money right away, you know how inconvenient it can be. Or if your son calls from college and needs tuition money transferred to his account, the necessary trip to the bank can be quite an interruption.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply put the caller on hold and conduct the transaction from your cell phone? Of course it would, and soon you can.

Although the concept of transforming cell phones into “portable banks” has been bandied about for some time now, Harris Bank of Chicago, Illinois launched test marketing of online banking and investing via Internet-ready wireless telephones last week.

If the tests go as well as the bank expects, Harris Bank’s customers will be offered the service sometime this year.

Carrying Your Bank in Your Pocket

While Harris Bank claims to be the first in the U.S. to offer wireless banking via a cellular phone, other banks are readying their own wireless services. As far back as last summer, Bank of America and software developer 724 Solutions announced a strategic agreement to offer banking services through wireless devices to the bank’s 30 million customers.

With International Data Corporation (IDC) projecting 12.2 million non-PC Internet access devices to be sold next year, a figure that nearly matches PC unit sales, the move by banks to go wireless comes not a moment too soon. Brook Newcomb, an analyst with Forrester Research, believes it will still be some years before the general public will rely on cell phones for their routine banking.

“This is for people on the go, who are not at any one given phone number,” Newcomb says. Newcomb believes mobile phones may find a wider audience among users who participate in online trading.

Liberating Office-Bound Users

Officials at Harris Bank beg to differ. Charles N. Piermarini, executive vice-president of Harris’ electronic business division, believes that there is a ready and waiting market for wireless banking. After a test run at Harris Bank’s parent company, Bank of Montreal, the organization determined that its customers are anxious to be freed up from their PCs.

“People said they liked being able to do things like pay bills while riding the train,” Piermarini said.

Indeed, bill paying is one of the great perks that wireless banking customers will enjoy. They will also be able to check their stocks at any hour and trade them with a few simple keystrokes, check account balances, view transactions, transfer funds between accounts and program their phones to alert them of any unusual activity in their account. Customers will also be able to order checks, view investment portfolios and access ancillary services, such as weather reports and horoscopes.

For the time being, however, those who choose wireless banking will have to play by some restrictions imposed by their bank. Harris Bank customers, for example, will have to have Sprint PCS cellular service. Bank of America began its initial offerings of wireless banking in October, but required customers to use a Palm VII T device from Palm Computing.

Banks Play to Their Audience

Meanwhile, recently released data from Frederick Schneiders Research, sponsored by eFunds, reveals that 80 percent of U.S. consumers polled rated their online banking experience higher than their traditional brick-and-mortar banking experience. More than 80 percent of respondents said they would like to be able to transfer funds electronically to an online account from accounts at other financial institutions.

Not surprisingly, the biggest hurdle facing both wireless banking innovators and online banking establishments is that nearly 85 percent of respondents are worried about security of online transactions, including credit card purchases online. More than 90 percent expressed concern about revealing personal information online, such as Social Security numbers.

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