Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mobile ATM in Davos - Sunday Times Jan 29 06

ALASTAIR LUKIES has just had a thrilling introduction to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Attending the Swiss summit as a “technology pioneer”, Lukies has spent the past week rubbing shoulders with international statesmen and the heads of some of the world’s biggest companies — along the way securing important deals for his yet-to-be-launched banking and payments business, Mobile ATM.

Lukies’s new partners include one of the best-known brands in Britain, and one of the most powerful companies on the internet. “It has been fantastic,” he said, “I’m absolutely humbled by it. I’ve had a secretary of state who’s been unbelievably supportive, taking time out to introduce me to lots of people.

“The technology entrepreneurs here are actually at the top of the pile for once, rather than at the bottom. They’re seen by everyone as the next wave of thinkers.”

Mobile ATM may be an unknown name, but previous technology pioneers recognised by the WEF have included Google and Skype. The latter would have been similarly unfamiliar to most Britons this time last year. A few months later it was bought by Ebay in a deal potentially worth $4 billion (£2.2 billion).

Mobile ATM, a joint venture between the Link cash-machine network and Morse, the quoted technology company, is also set to become much better known.

In a few weeks’ time, Mobile ATM will launch a service that will allow most mobile-phone users to have “on demand” access to their bank-account details. Additionally, the two-thirds of mobile users who “pay as you go” will be able to top up without having to buy vouchers from a newsagent or using an electronic top-up machine.

Users will need to register with Mobile ATM to validate the connection between their phone number and bank account. They will then be able to check their balance by keying in a five-digit Pin after establishing a mobile-data connection to the Link network.

Lukies, 32, believes the convenience of Mobile ATM’s service means it will capture a large slice of the UK’s £4 billion-a-year mobile top-up business. “You won’t have to go and find a newsagent that’s open, you will be able to top up your phone, or your daughter’s phone, or your brother’s, while sitting on your couch.”

Lukies and co-founder Steve Atkinson have devised a system to work with all mobile operators and all 37 banks that use Link. This desire for comprehensiveness has led to some delay: Mobile ATM originally planned to launch last year.

HSBC and First Direct will be among the four banks participating when the service goes live in March. And mobile top-ups are just the start. Lukies hopes other payments could also move on to the secure system — for example, London’s congestion charge, credits for the Tube’s Oyster card, and the purchase of lottery tickets.

Mobile ATM believes it can generate highly prized data traffic for the mobile-network operators, and reduce costs for them and for the banks. Although top-up calls will be free, balance inquiries will attract a flat rate-charge.

Every month the Link deals with 150m balance inquiries via its cash machines. Many millions more are handled by bank call centres. Substantial savings could be made if some of this burden shifted to the Mobile ATM service.

Lukies said his service would also be able to cut the cost of top-ups to the mobile companies by as much as half. Distributing vouchers is costly, and even though electronic top-up is cheaper and more efficient, Mobile ATM plans to cut the cost still further, charging a commission of about 4%.

While this is an interesting use of mobile technology, it would not have caught the attention of the WEF at Davos were it not for its potential use in the developing world. In Africa and Latin America, mobile phones are already far more ubiquitous than bank branches. The WEF believes Mobile ATM’s system could be used to make financial services much more widely available in the developing world without having to invest in expensive and unnecessary branch infrastructure.

Mobile ATM is working with Sun Microsystems to roll out its service across three continents.

“This is two big industries getting together and putting the consumer first,” said Lukies — the sort of upbeat message that goes down well at Davos

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