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On opposite sides of m-payments divide, Amex and AT&T make progress

In Europe and Asia, most operators have succeeded in reaching a compromise with Visa, Amex or Mastercard to launch their NFC enabled mobile payments s

By PETER WHITE

Published: 14 April, 2011

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In Europe and Asia, most operators have succeeded in reaching a compromise with Visa, Amex or Mastercard to launch their NFC enabled mobile payments services, after years when the two sides wrangled over who would take the biggest share of transaction value. But in the US there is a head-to-head brewing. Three of the national carriers have formed the Isis venture to set up an NFC network, working with Discover Financial Services for payment processing, rather than any of the credit card giants. This may well be a tactic to try to get one of the majors onside, but so far the credit card majors, and the web players PayPal and Google, are pursuing their own agendas. Both sides have enhanced their strategies in the past week, with Amex investing in Payfone while AT&T announced a white label m-commerce platform.

Amex’s investment in m-payments provider Payfone came two weeks after the former launched its all-digital platform, Serve. It joins Verizon Investments and Canadian telco Rogers Communications in a $19m round of funding, alongside existing investors Opus Capital, BlackBerry Partners Fund and RRE Ventures.

This is more than a strategic stake for Amex, which will start to leverage Payfone’s technology immediately, integrating it into the new Serve platform. Serve made its debut last week, offering PayPal-like online services, though Amex claims it will be a far broader system in future and will soon incorporate handset swipe transactions. The platform is based on another Amex acquisition, the $300 million purchase of Revolution Money.

For now, Serve allows users to make purchases, transfer money to other people, or withdraw cash from ATMs, using their handsets or PCs. Over time, it will gain NFC-based mobile swipe payments, as well as integration with social networking, recommendations engines and loyalty programs. Like other credit card firms, Amex will look to remain in control if transactions shift from a plastic card to a cellphone – the crossover of which cellcos, too, hope to take advantage. However, Amex knows it will need to work with carriers, particularly on supporting billing to the consumer’s mobile phone bill.

As device makers, operators and banks look to 2012 as the year when mobile payments finally go mainstream beyond Japan and Korea, other specialist start-ups will be looking for powerful investors. Examples include BillToMobile, Mopay, Boku and Zong (all of which, except Mopay, work with AT&T).

Payfone says its differentiator is to leverage the standards used by cellcos to authenticate users when roaming, in order to determine whether a consumer is credit worthy or has funds available for a purchase. By checking with the carrier upfront, it claims to reduce fraud charges and identity theft, which could result in lower fees.

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