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March 29, 2010

Synthesizing the mobile ecosystem: Resolving customer problems in mobile payments clearing and settlement models

The folks engaging in the early stages of the mobile payments industry have coined the term "mobile ecosystem" to describe the environment into which they are trying to merge the traditional roles of telecommunications with those of payments and banking. While some in this fledgling industry are already becoming disenchanted with the grandeur of the "ecosystem" terminology, the concept does suggest a useful model for thinking about the challenges faced in this new arena.

A few weeks ago I received a new issue of National Geographic that contained a fantastic article (and even more fantastic pictures) of the unique ecosystem of the African island nation of Madagascar. The ecosystem of this large island, located off the southeastern coast of Africa, has yielded an extraordinary collection of plants and animals that live in a tropical setting interrupted by some truly anguished geological formations. The local ecosystem is, of course, actually a collection of subsystems (plants, animals, climate, topography, etc.) that have adapted over time to work seamlessly together. For example, large families of lemurs leap fearlessly and safely among knife-sharp rock formations because their hands and feet have developed coarse, leather-like padding over thousands of years.

In the mobile ecosystem, we see a similar makeup of subsystems that must work together. The technology and operational components, while not trivial, are clearly achievable, and many are in place today. The challenges that lie ahead, however, are in the sub-ecosystems of law, regulation, data security, data privacy, customer care, and profitability. Depending on the nature of some of the mobile payment solution alternatives, the banking and the telecommunications industries find themselves wondering if they can coexist on the same island. Is there enough value to the customer to generate the revenue necessary to fund a mobile payments initiative? Who gets or shares the revenue? Who is responsible for data security and authentication, and how does that credential or certainty get passed along the mobile payment supply chain? Who resolves the customer's problem if a mistake is made? What consumer protection rights exist in case of error or fraud, and do those rights change depending on whether a traditional payments system is used to settle the transaction? Are proven models in other countries transportable, or are the characteristics of the economics and user base too different?

With respect to customer care and protection, I recently asked an audience of representatives from the full span of the mobile payment value chain, "Who owns the customer in a mobile transaction?" Gratifyingly, they agreed they all did. However, the true ownership response may ultimately depend on the nature of the transaction and agreement on who is liable if anything goes wrong. Take the case of a person-to-person payment initiated by Consumer A (Barbara Buyer) to Consumer B (Gloria Girl Scout's Mom) for payment of six boxes of Girl Scout cookies (three Thin Mints and three Trefoils). In a telephone-based clearing model, Barbara would enter the requisite $21 in the payment instruction and designate the phone number of Gloria's mom in the recipient field, and both their phone bills would be adjusted accordingly. Now suppose that Barbara was distracted by her daughter's chiding that she really wanted Samoas and carelessly entered $210. Since the payment never went through the payment system, Barbara Buyer cannot rely on traditional banking regulatory protections or problem resolution processes. She must resolve the problem with her phone provider, who has already credited Gloria's mom. Alternately, given PayPal's March 16 announcement of an iPhone app to send money to another person, PayPal's resolution procedures could be in play.

If, however, Barbara's phone company clears the transaction through a mobile service ACH backend, or Barbara pays Gloria's mom through a P2P service offered by her bank, the error resolution process is likely through normal banking customer service channels, and the adjustment process may be managed differently, assuming an adjustment process is contractually spelled out in either case. In reality, Barbara would probably get Gloria's mom to write her a check for $189 to straighten things out. While this may seem like a trivial example, it does dramatize some of the issues that must be worked out in the new ecosystem of mobile payments to make such services work effectively for the customer's benefit.

Given these difficult challenges, it seems likely that various models will initially emerge within alliance groups (one phone company, one or more application providers, a few partner banks, etc.) before they begin to converge into one or more universal market models. Along the way, one hopes that the key participants can collaborate to anticipate the types of risk issues that could arrive in the real world so that the consumer's experience turns out to be one that encourages growth. In the age of e-mailing, twittering, and facebooking, it is increasingly clear to me that mobile banking and mobile payments are in our future and that they will be a very attractive service to some key sectors of our population. However, they will be extremely slow to develop if critical mass issues such as those mentioned above are not resolved up front. In fact, this would be a good place for banks to try new, customer-friendly approaches to consumer education and disclosure that match the payment channel being used and the customer demographic.

By Rich Oliver, executive vice president, FRB Atlanta's Retail Payments Risk Forum

March 29, 2010 in authentication , data security , fraud , mobile banking , mobile payments , risk | Permalink


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