It can scale mountains in a single bound and wend its way down the most wretched roads. It is the mighty cellphone signal - and the latest hope for bringing financial services to the world's masses who do not have access to banks.
Grameen Solutions, an affiliate of the Grameen Bank that was created by the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, this week teamed with Obopay, a mobile payment company based in California, to provide banking to a billion poor people using cellphones.
"Today, it's difficult to reach these people," Aditya Menon, Obopay's executive director for India, said at a news conference in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai. "If you solve that problem, you are enabling them to enter the economy."
The joint venture plans to introduce pilot programs in India and Bangladesh in October and aims to reach a billion people globally by 2018, in large part by keeping costs ultra low - possibly through the help of charitable foundations.
Obopay, whose partners include Verizon Wireless, Citigroup, the BlackBerry maker Research In Motion and AT&T, is already active in the United States, where customers who want to send money pay 10 cents for every transaction. After opening an Obopay account, you can transfer money between bank accounts, credit cards and phones via text messages.
Carol Realini, Obopay's founder and chief executive, did not say what the transaction fees would be for India and Bangladesh.
The announcement comes at a time of increasing convergence between telecom and financial services, especially in the developing world, where far more people have access to cellphones than banks. Mobile banking services have already proven popular in countries like the Philippines, Kenya and South Africa.
The payoff could be big for companies providing these services. People who are now "unbanked" in China, India and Brazil alone could generate $85 billion in banking revenue by 2015, according to an estimate by Boston Consulting Group.
In January, ICICI Bank of India, one of the country's largest banks, presented a mobile banking system. The State Bank of India, which has more than 100 million customers, many of whom do not have Internet access, has tapped the Indian telecom company Spanco Telesystems & Solutions to set up its mobile banking systems.
The Bank of India, another public sector bank, also plans to introduce mobile services soon, allowing customers to transfer funds, pay bills and even buy movie tickets over the phone.
All, however, have to wait for the finalization of national mobile banking guidelines, which the Reserve Bank of India says will happen soon. A Reserve Bank spokeswoman, Alpana Killawala, said she could provide a more specific timeframe.
For now, Indian banks are restricted to offering informational services, like account balances and ATM locations.
Killawala emphasized that the Reserve Bank supported the nascent technology. She cited a pilot project with a women's group in a remote district of Andhara Pradesh, a largely rural state in southern India, where the participants, most of whom could not read and write, found the technology "convenient to use."
Dean Tong, a managing director at Boston Consulting Group, said the idea began to accelerate about four years ago, partially by accident. When Globe Telecom let cellphone users in the Philippines transfer wireless minutes to each other, the mostly poor consumers turned the minutes into a currency.
Globe followed by introducing G-Cash, which lets customers transfer funds by text message.
Mobile banking could be another area where the developing world leapfrogs the developed world, which is often constrained by expensive, pre-existing infrastructure. For example, countries like India and Cambodia have often skipped the construction of land lines in favor of installing only mobile phone technology.
Similarly, it is far easier to improve rural cellphone coverage than it is to build countless bank branches to serve a billion people tucked away in remote areas. Already more than three billion people around the world have mobile access, with emerging markets responsible for 85 percent of new connections, according to the GSM Association, a mobile phone trade group.
Still, hurdles remain before mobile banking becomes widely used. Network operators must have broad enough coverage to connect urban and rural users, as many remittances come from urban migrants sending money back to their family villages. It can also be hard to convince villagers, many of whom are new to the concept of banking, that a virtual bank is a safe place to stash their hard-earned cash.
"The trust must be there," Tong said. "'Put your money here, and oh, by the way, there's nothing actually there.' That's a bit of a hard sell."
6 months ago