Another U.S. Bank Plans to Test Payment with Contactless microSDs

Wells Fargo bank will reportedly test contactless-mobile payment this fall in association with Visa Inc., using microSD cards and a payWave application onboard. 

The bank, one of the top five in the United States, is joining at least two other large American banks, Bank of America and U.S. Bank, in trying out the new contactless flash-memory cards for payment, Reuters news service reported. It quoted Visa Inc.’s head of mobile, Bill Gajda, as saying other banks would also test the cards before the end of the year and that Visa hoped to introduce a product next year. "We want to be commercially ready early in 2011," he said.

News of the trial follows earlier reports that BofA and U.S. Bank will also test the cards this fall. All three banks will use smartphones, into which trial participants will insert microSDs packing payWave. They could then tap the phones wherever payWave is accepted, which is roughly 100,000 merchant locations in the U.S.

In Turkey, Akbank and Visa Europe have also said they plan to test the microSDs.

BofA and U.S. Bank have said the trials will be conducted mainly with employees and confirmed that among the smartphone models to be used will be Apple’s iPhone. That will require a special iPhone attachment to add a microSD card slot. BofA also said some BlackBerry models would be involved in its test. Wells Fargo declined to release further details about its planned trial.

The microSD cards for all three trials will be supplied by U.S.-based DeviceFidelity under an exclusive agreement with Visa. The vendor also supplies the special contactless sleeve for the iPhone, which does not have its own microSD card slot.

The contactless microSDs from DeviceFidelity and one or two other suppliers are attracting growing interest among banks, especially in the U.S., because they enable the financial institutions to offer contactless-mobile payment without waiting for NFC phones and without working directly with mobile operators.

Big banks and major card schemes, such as Visa and MasterCard Worldwide, are under growing pressure in the U.S. to introduce mobile payment. Giant mobile carriers Verizon and AT&T, along with T-Mobile USA, have formed a joint venture with the intention of introducing their own mobile-payment scheme. And such alternative mobile-payment schemes as Bling Nation are also trying to gain a foothold.

The big U.S. telcos hope to use full NFC phones, but will also likely try out bridge technologies, such as the stickers, microSDs or SIM cards with flexible antennas.

The bank trials of the microSD cards with Visa will be crucial to determine the quality of the user experience. The microSDs, which come embedded with tiny contactless antennas, have a shorter range than standard contactless cards. This could mean consumers will not be able to tap to pay with any part of the phone, but may need to touch it to the reader on or near the microSD card slot. That could create confusion among consumers. It's noteworthy that BofA, U.S. Bank and likely Wells Fargo are expected to test the microSDs first with employees and perhaps their friends and family members before opening up the technology to general customers, even for trials.

The microSDs, except for those inserted into the iPhone attachments, also require a power boost from the phones to send transaction data to point-of-sale terminal readers. This might affect the phones' battery charge. DeviceFidelity’s iPhone attachment has a full-size antenna, which can draw all the power it needs from POS terminal readers to exchange transaction data, according to the company.

Wells Fargo held an NFC phone trial in early 2007, though it's not clear whether the bank expanded the trial to actual customers, as originally planned.

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