WiFi Access Hot Among Consumers, But CUs Lukewarm (For Now)

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Wireless access may be the talk of the town (again) for high-tech members, but it will be a while before credit unions are part of the conversation.

That is according to Brian Siegel, e-commerce manager and Sam Sandhu, vice president of information technology at $2.4-billion Wescom Credit Union.

"Wireless fidelity technology is very hot for consumers," Siegel said. "But right now WiFi is about convenience when using your laptop around your workplace, home or school rather than 'anytime, anywhere' access" to online financial services.

Wireless fidelity, or "WiFi," relays Internet and other network connections via radio waves, allowing people to surf from their own laptops or mobile devices at coffee shops or backyards sans the maze of computer cables.

"The great thing about WiFi is that there is nothing the credit union needs to do to support it," Siegel said. "The member uses a laptop, PDA, or other device to access the Internet, but does so using a standard browser, like Internet Explorer. In other words, it's transparent to us whether the member is accessing us via wireless or not-we're delivering the same content and format in all cases."

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Cornerstone Advisors recently predicted that although WiFi has been hibernating for the past three years, the technology will soon invigorate the self-service Internet.

In part, that's because self-service products such as bill pay or e-statements may be more valuable if they are available beyond home and work.

The caveats for CU e-commerce: Public wireless networks, or "hotspots" are limited in number and are only broadcast over short distances, said Siegel. In addition, hotspots aren't free and suffer from "security concerns."

And while the e-commerce side of the WiFi financial services market looks like a distant horizon, a WiFi operations environment at CUs is even harder to imagine, according to Sandhu.

"Wescom is not planning to use wireless networking right now," Sandhu said. He said that doing business with good, old-fashioned (and well-concealed) computer cables seems to be working just fine.

"Our network is so complex and our only link to the outside world is two, highly-guarded Internet connections," Sandhu continued.

The 25-branch CU relies on redundant mixtures of broadband and dial-in connections; voice, video and data feeds; intrusion detection and dual firewalls; Cisco routers; and frame-relay and TCP/IP ATM networks to support its own network and the service bureau offerings it provides to other CUs via Wescom Resources Group.

"If we put in a wireless network, we bypass all that security we put in place," he explained. "WiFi is secure compared to what it used to be, but if it does not provide our workforce with a whole lot of functionality, then why do we want to take a chance?"

Wescom's 200,000 members certainly haven't snuggled up to WiFi. In the year that Wescom offered wireless banking via cellphone, 200 members used it, said Siegel.

"I think it failed because it couldn't deliver on its promise of making access easier," Siegel explained. "Given slow speeds, tiny screens, unwieldy keypads, and limited information, if you had a phone in your hand it was just easier and faster to call audio response."

Despite WiFi's rocky history, manufacturers and many financial institutions aren't giving up. Hotspot proliferation and improved protocols and devices may fulfill the promise.

Said Siegel: "I do think that it's just a matter of time before members can be searching our Web site, making transfers, or paying bills from the beach or wherever they happen to be. It's hard to say if that is two years or ten years down the road, but that's where things are headed."

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