Portals and Rails

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Portals and Rails, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Portals and Rails and look forward to collaborating with you.

February 16, 2010


Haitian crisis: Are mobile payment discussions an unexpected consequence?

The earthquake in Haiti caused massive destruction that ultimately leveled the capital city of Port-au-Prince and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. As charitable assistance has poured in from around the world, an unexpected revelation has come to light with respect to the potential for mobile phone–enabled payments. Within a matter of days, wireless network operaters facilitated millions of dollars in donations, demonstrating how quickly people all over the world could assemble to adopt a single payment method for a specific purpose. Through the use of text messaging, or SMS (short message service), via the mobile phone, consumers could send payments to a variety of charitable organizations providing aid to Haiti.

Convenience of text messaging can drive adoption
I heard someone say recently that "convenience is like a drug for consumers." This convenience is possibly why texting is outpacing e-mail messaging as a mainstream form of communication—the ubiquity of mobile phones makes texting increasingly easier, cheaper, more convenient, and perhaps a natural vehicle for sending payment instructions. According to research released by Nielsen Mobile, the typical U.S. consumer sends and receives more SMS text messages than telephone calls. Mobile SMS is already widely used in developing countries to facilitate mobile money transfers for domestic person-to-person payments and cross-border remittances.

What if something goes wrong?
In many developing countries, mobile money transfer payments are transmitted via SMS without a bank partner to facilitate clearing and settlement. As described in an earlier post, Safaricom's M-pesa service provides mobile phone–enabled payments through text message instructions, with cash-out needs accommodated by agents, typically a village store or wireless retailer. But many of the payments are peer-to-peer in nature and funded by topping up the consumer's mobile phone bill. In the Haiti example, customers also could fund the payment by adding the value of the donation to their phone bills or by debiting a bank account.

Of course, the legal and regulatory environments in the United States differ markedly from developing markets like Kenya, where the M-pesa mobile payments service has grown so rapidly. The risk environments also differ significantly. In Kenya, a consumer faces less risk of loss in a mobile-enabled payment environment than the cash-based system that prevailed only a few years ago. U.S. consumers have many choices in payments and enjoy legal protections if service providers fail to consummate the payment transaction.

So what happens if the $20 donation instruction you sent to Haiti appears as a $200 or even a $2,000 charge on your bill? What if there is a disagreement about the error between you and your wireless carrier? What else could go wrong?

Protection for consumers
One of the growing challenges created by payment innovations is the creation of new laws and rule sets, which provide different protections depending on the payment type. This challenge is further complicated as payments converge and assume different formats along the supply chain. For example, a payment initiated via a credit card on a mobile device is subject to error resolution procedures and consumer protection standards established by the card networks. Similarly, Regulation E covers electronic transactions initiated from a bank deposit account. But if you disagree with a charge to your phone bill for a payment, it is questionable whether the error resolution provisions of Regulation E would even apply. As telecom firms become more important participants in retail payments, what laws and rule sets can consumers look to for protection when things go awry?

Of course, these issues are highly hypothetical but also very possible. Telecom firms and mobile payment service providers are filling new roles in mobile payments, forcing business models that we know today into a new paradigm. Perhaps the crisis in Haiti will serve as a catalyst for proactive thinking on risk issues so that all industry participants can work together to build a safe and trusted mobile sector of commerce.

By Cindy Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum

February 16, 2010 in collaboration, emerging payments, innovation, mobile network operator (MNO), mobile payments, telecom | Permalink

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October 05, 2009


Mobile top-up for international remittances: New opportunities and new risks

The growth in the mobile telecommunication industry worldwide is driving the ubiquity of handsets, which in turn is expanding the reach of financial services across wireless networks in less developed countries.

Mobile_top_-_up_international_remittances_image

Adding air-time value (industry parlance known as "mobile top-up") to a mobile phone represents a new method that some mobile network operators (MNOs) are using to provide payment services, particularly in emerging countries where financial services are scarce. One example is Safaricom's M-Pesa, offered in Kenya and Tanzania. This service uses money agents, often small village stores, to sell additional air time on mobile phones. This air time can then be used for nontelecom purchases of goods and services, or sent via text message (SMS) as a person-to-person (P2P) payment transfer, allowing the recipient to use the prepaid value.

A recent case study found improved financial access in years following the 2007 launch of M-Pesa. The availability of mobile payment services lessened the population's reliance upon more risky hand-to-hand transfers and has been widely reported as a positive development for these emerging economies. Initiatives such as the Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU) program supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are contributing to the expanded use of mobile financial services in emerging markets.

Mobile top-up is also emerging as a means for international remittances by allowing users in one country, such as the United States, to purchase mobile air time for users in other countries, thereby "topping-up" the recipient's account in the local currency. For example, Western Union recently announced a service to provide mobile top-up remittances within the United States for users of phones issued by LIME in the Caribbean. Because many international telecom operators have roaming agreements that span geographic borders, mobile top-up remittances can be far-reaching, with the recipient using the prepaid value on the mobile phone to purchase goods and services in the home country.

While these innovations have been shown to have positive impacts in terms of access to financial services in emerging markets and may offer a number of other efficiency benefits, they also alter the risk profile for service providers and those who monitor payments for criminal activity. Depending upon the business model and parties involved, regulatory and law enforcement agencies will have new issues to consider in terms of anti-money laundering and monitoring international payment flows under existing laws. These developments in the mobile top-up market deserve continued attention to ensure that effective policing of payment flows can ride alongside the positive developments in the emergence of a new means for movement of money internationally.

By Cindy Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

October 5, 2009 in mobile network operator (MNO), remittances, telecom | Permalink

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September 28, 2009


Coordinating roles in mobile payments--who will we trust?

The concept of mobile payments is beginning to gain some traction as the industry grapples with environmental complexities—namely the myriad participants in the mobile payments arena, the mulitiple channels for a mobile payment to follow, and the ever-present questions about security. Who can be trusted to intercede among the various entities with an interest in the payments process? While a number of roles in the mobile payments arena are taking shape, the least known and possibly the most confusing is the concept of the trusted service manager (TSM). However, this role is also possibly the most critical to establishing a secure and trusted environment for mobile payments. So what exactly is a TSM and what are its responsibilities?

Complex environment for mobile payments
While anecdotes sometimes dismiss the anticipated speed to market of mobile payments as industry hype, the fact is that the ubiquity of the mobile phone is driving the convergence of telecom and payments. This convergence creates a far more complex environment for payments than ever before. Telecom participants and financial institutions have different regulatory and legal frameworks and distinctly different risk exposure, for example.  Furthermore, the U.S. mobile payments environment will leverage existing payment channels, such as the automated clearinghouse (ACH) and the card networks. No one knows if the industry and market will ultimately prefer a particular channel. The result is an array of business models with a vast number of unrelated players with competing interests for customer revenue.

Stakeholders in the mobile payments business model
In addition to the traditional payments model that includes the customer, financial institutions, and perhaps payment processors, the developing mobile payments ecosystem also includes large groups of mobile network operators and handset makers who have no previous payments life cycle experience. For payment system interoperability, all participants must agree to operate under uniform technical operating and security standards. In this context, the role of a TSM is to manage collaboration among the various stakeholders.

Role of the TSM
The concept of the TSM was introduced by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSM) in 2007 in an effort to improve interoperability among various and unrelated proprietary mobile networks. The core function of the TSM is to serve as a neutral and independent middleman between financial institutions, payment network operators, customers, and the mobile network operators.

Responsibilites envisioned for the TSM include managing contractual relationships with the large number of mobile network operators (MNOs) as well as acting as a single point of contact for banks and other payment service providers to communicate with customers they share with the MNOs and handset makers. The key to the TSM’s success clearly is the financial wherewithal to inspire trust on behalf of the other payment participants and to support agreements with a large number of partners. Finally, the TSM should also provide the oversight for various systems among participants to ensure secure transmission of payments and personal data in the transaction.

Who should fill the role?
While the need for a TSM is recognized, there is no consensus on who should fill that role. MNOs, payment network operators, and financial institutions lack the economic incentives to form alliances with other participants in the payment ecosystem because of their competing interests for customer revenue. Whether the role is filled by a consortium of existing players or by a new entity yet to be formed will depend on an ability to fulfill these critical responsibilities from a position of neutrality and independence.

By Cindy Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

September 28, 2009 in ACH, card networks, mobile network operator (MNO), payments, trusted service manager | Permalink

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