Thursday, November 29, 2007

More evidence of traction

According to a number of press releases today, Bank of America have reached 500 000 subscribers to mobile banking within five months. Amongst others, the story wqs picked up by CNN. I am of the opinion if this was the case with any other product launched by the bank, everybody would hail it as a big success. I looking at Bank of America's mobile banking offering, a number of things struck me:
  • A link to mobile banking can be found on the Bank of America home page. This is an indication that they view mobile banking as mainstream.
  • They have registered a .mobi domain-name ( No sense in doing this, if you don't view it as important.
  • They spend a lot of effort to demonstrate the solution, by making use of the media, special blog pages, videos etc. At least they understood that the public would only respond if told about things... and it seems as if they were right.
Now they just need to improve the offering with more innovative services.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Secure Mobile Banking

The perception still exists that mobile banking transactions in Africa is based on low security SMS technology in the clear. Nothing can be further from the truth. All of the more serious mobile banking security deployments (MTN banking, Celpay, 121Cellmoney, mPESA, MODE) are much higher than most other payment solution. The advantage of the deployments on mobile phones is that you can design extremely secure transactions. This is achieved by making use of the crypto keys that are resident on the SIM card in GSM phones. In our solutions, we employ many innovative designs to ensure very security solutions:

1. All messages are encrypted on the phone using the keys on the SIM with 3DES encryption algorithms. This is application-based encryption - not just carrier encryption.
2. All messages on GSM networks are compressed and then encrypted again using GSM protocols (every message is thus encrypted twice)
3. The PIN entry is accepted by a special program resident on the SIM card (impossible to replace with Trojan horses or Phishing attacks).
4. The PIN is never stored, it is encrypted on the SIM card according to Banking specifications. (As a matter of fact, Fundamo technology was the first to be certified by Mastercard according to PPED specifications for banking transactions)
5. Each payment message is MAC'ed with a special tamper-proof algorithm, that protects against Man-in-the-middle attacks and possible re-playing of messages.

By the way, the biggest transaction value on our solution was a business to business payment of more than US$ 50 000. This will never be possible with SMS's in the clear.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Research confirming growth in Mobile Banking

Recent research released in South Africa by World Wide Worx, have some very interesting findings about Mobile Banking in South Africa. The advantage of this research is that it has been conducted for the past three years. Clear trends can now be formed comparing the findings of 2005, 2006 and 2007. The results show an explosion in the usage by end-consumers of mobile banking. In this survey the number of respondents that have used mobile banking during 2007 have jumped to 17% (from 8%). In addition the research found that more than 50% of respondents plan to be using mobile banking by 2008.

However, the most interesting result of the research (which also tracks other services delivered via mobile phones) is that mobile banking is by far the mobile service used by older people. According to the research the likelihood of using cellphones for banking services increases with age, in contrast to the usage of other cellphone functions going down as users get older. For instance, urban cellphone users aged from 46 to 55 years are twice as likely to use cellphones for banking as those in the 19 to 24 age group.

I think some analysts might want to take notice of these findings.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Qualcomm investing in GSM technology

This was a major announcement last week and quite a surprise to every observer of mobile banking: Qualcomm intends purchasing Firethorn for $210 Million. In looking at this announcement many questions will probably stay unanswered, but it is still good fun to ask them:

1. On what basis did Qualcomm get to a valuation of $210 Million? Firethorn had very little revenue and to all accounts technology that have not yet been proven in robust business environments. The number of subscribers utilising Firethorn technology is so low that this could also not have been the basis of the valuation. Seeing that Qualcomm is a publicly traded company, one would expect some more info being made available rather than the sketchy press release provided last week.

2. How does the major partners of Firethorn feel about the acquisition, and have they been consulted? It is really interesting that Qualcomm (major CDMA and Brew supplier) should purchase a Java based company with some of the major GSM Operators as customers (Verizon and Cingular). Interestingly, neither Verizon nor Cingular are mentioned in the press release (only the banking partners).

3. Qualcomm is currently an investor in Obopay - a direct competitor to Firethorn in terms of their technology and business model. What does this acquisition say about the future of Obopay? Does this mean that Qualcomm has discarded Obopay? Are they thinking of merging the propositions... very difficult. I just have difficulties getting my mind around this.

4. Which investors will gain most from this transaction and how could they have influenced the transaction? Maybe this deal does not have anything to do with the fundamentals of the solution and how this will change the landscape of mobile banking, but rather about more complex economic principles that not all of us can understand.

If I were a Qualcomm shareholder, I would really have felt aggrieved about this transaction, but then, I am not and now I am just frowning...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Mobile banking in Africa

Fundamo was one of the first companies that demonstrated a working mobile payment solution with the first pilot in conjunction with Boland Bank announced during 2000. Absa Bank launched the first commercial mobile banking solution during 2002 in South Africa. Absa claims that more than 300 000 subscribers have enrolled for the service to date. This early launch have been followed up with launches of different types of solutions from Standard Bank, FNB, Nedcor, Investec and others. Although numbers are not readily available, a rough estimate of more than a million mobile banking subscribers is not far off. This is amazing if one considers the short time that mobile banking has been available.
During the past five years many initiatives were announced and often launched in South Africa. Many large technology companies and smaller ones made announcements and then disappeared again. South African companies that offered mobile banking solutions include Prism, Namitech, Cointel and Paym8. The launch of Wizzit in conjunction with Bank of Athens was so spectacular that they featured on CNN, Financial Mail and many other publications. Citibank and Standard and Chartered played with ideas to use the mobile channel to enter the South African market with a different and exciting angle, but did not implement.
The launch of MTN Banking during 2005 can be considered as the ultimate mobile banking solution with many new angles and an exciting offering. Combining mobile concepts with banking a totally new banking experience was created. Some of the concepts like "a banking starter pack", "pay as you bank" etc. worked well to grow a subscriber base quickly into hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
Today, South Africa is one of the leading examples of successful mobile banking deployments.
With the exception of South Africa and the successful deployments of Celpay in the DRC and Zambia (supported by Fundamo technology), quite a number of other examples of mobile payment and banking solutions exist in Africa. Celpay is one of the first mobile payment solutions deployed in the world and provides advanced payment functionality in countries with little (if any) payment infrastructure. It has been reported that Celpay payments in Zambia now accounts for almost 4% of the GNP.
has turned into a hotbed of mobile payment innovation with one of the mobile operators Glo offering a product called Glomoney since launch. This solution provides mobile payment features on ATM cards from most banks. The solution is supported by one of the ATM switches called Interswitch who is now rolling this out to other banks and talking of providing it also via Celtel. (The solution initially available on special SIM cards, is now also available via a Java client to be downloaded on the phone). Other successful initiatives are from a company called eTranxact whom operates the solution themselves. The same technology is currently in production in Zimbabwe with Kingdom Bank. Flash-me-Cash is a SMS based viral payment mechanism that are claiming to have more than 500 000 subscribers and is based on a structured SMS solution.
Another area in Africa with a number of initiatives under way or in production is Kenya and surrounding countries. A number of banks recently announced mobile banking solutions. A noteworthy example is Consolidated Bank with a USSD mobile banking offering. South African company, Paym8 have deployed their solution since 2005 with Safaricom and is claiming an acceptable take-up. Card payment acquirer, iVeri (a Blue Label company) offers mobile payment functionality in Rwanda. One of the most important initiatives, however is the Vodafone backed mPesa initiative. This technology (developed in London) has been in pilot deployment since early 2006 and was recently placed in production with Vodafone subsidiary Safaricom. mPesa is receiving massive backing from London and is poised to be rolled out to other Vodafone networks (Egypt and possibly South Africa). The technology is SIM based and well designed with good “cash-out” functionality. A recently announced collaboration with Citibank allows for money remittance from London to Kenya.

A North African example is the roll-out of a mobile payment solution in conjunction with VISA in Morocco. The technology utilised was provided by French company Upaid and supported in country by Maroc Telecom and BCP (a bank). Other examples in North Africa are initiatives launched in Egypt and Tunisia.

A perspective on the History

The first mobile banking and payment initiatives was announced during 1999 (the same year that Fundamo deployed their first prototype). The first major deployment was made by a company called Paybox (largely supported financially by Deutsche Bank). The company was founded by two young German’s (Mathias Entemann and Eckart Ortwein) and successfully deployed the solution in Germany, Austria, Sweden, Spain and the UK. At about 2003 more than a million people were registered on Paybox and the company were rated by Gartner as the leader in the field. Unfortunately Deutsche Bank withdraw their financial support and the company had to reorganise quickly. All but the operations in Austria closed down.
Another early starter and also identified as a leader in the field was a Spanish initiative (backed by BBVA and Telephonica), called Mobi Pago. The name was later changed to Mobi Pay and all banks and mobile operators in Spain were invited to join. The product was launched in 2003 and many retailers were acquired to accept the special USSD payment confirmation. Because of the complex shareholding and the constant political challenges of the different owners, the product never fulfilled the promise that it had. With no marketing support and no compelling reason for adoption, this initiative is floundering at the moment.

Many other large players announced initiatives and ran pilots with big fanfare, but never showed traction and all initiatives were ultimately discontinued. Some of the early examples are the famous vending machines at the Helsinki airport supported by a system from Nokia. Siemens made announcements in conjunction with listed and high-flying German e-commerce company, Brokat. Brokat also won the lucrative Vodafone contract in 2002, but crashed soon afterwards when it run out of funds.

(as can be expected) produced a large number of mobile payment start-ups. Of the many, only one survived – Trivnet. Others like Adamtech (with a technically sound solution called Cellpay) and Paytt disappeared after a number of pilots but without any successful production deployments.
Initiatives in Norway, Sweden and France never got traction. France Telecom launched an ambitious product based on a special mobile phone with an integrated card reader. The solution worked well, but never became popular because of the unattractive, special phone that participants needed in order to perform these payments.

Since 2004, mobile banking and payment industry has come of age. Successful deployments with positive business cases and big strategic impact have been seen recently.