Moving to jump-start smart cards in the United States, 11 banks said they will join three leading providers of the technology as owners of a company called SmartCash.
The venture aims to build a nationwide network that will enable the use of smart cards - plastic payment cards with embedded computer chips - in place of cash for payments under $20.
The size and composition of the ownership group amount to a major endorsement of the technology and an indication that many of the nation's biggest banks agree that they will have to pool resources to create a new type of payment system.
Electronic Payment Services Inc., owner of the MAC electronic banking network and developer of a smart card trial to begin in Delaware next year, initiated the discussions that led to the agreement in principle announced Wednesday. The company's five owners - Banc One Corp., CoreStates Financial Corp., Keycorp, National City Corp., and PNC Bank Corp. - are among the SmartCash "founding owners."
Other banks include the highly competitive big three in North Carolina - First Union Corp., NationsBank Corp., and Wachovia Corp. - which have committed to participate in Visa's chip card trial surrounding the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Also in the group are MasterCard International Inc., which is active in smart card development and owns the SmartCash service mark; the French smart card manufacturer Gemplus; and the point of sale terminal manufacturer Verifone Inc.
The other banks are Chemical Banking Corp. and longtime Visa loyalist BankAmerica Corp. - both of which have chip card trials under way - and Wilmington Trust Corp., which is working on the Electronic Payment Services project in Delaware.
Visa is conspicuously absent; it was not initially invited to the table, said David M. Van Lear, chairman and chief executive of Electronic Payment Systems, which has participated in Visa's international working group on stored value cards. But now, "this deal is open to Visa for participation if they so desire."
A Visa spokesman said the company has no plans to become involved.
Mr. Van Lear said the venture brings together the "essential elements" needed to introduce smart cards to the mass market. The banks bring more than 50 million consumers, merchant relationships, branch networks, marketing, and distribution. MasterCard and EPS deliver the technology, and the card and terminal manufacturers add the hardware necessary to complete the transaction.
Banks will gain access to technology, market research, and the experience of seasoned players such as Gemplus. And SmartCash licenses will be available to other U.S. financial institutions, networks, and technology providers.
Mr. Van Lear said Electronic Payment Services, which has repeatedly delayed its Delaware plans, gains "instant stardom" through the joint venture. "We didn't want to develop something that worked in Delaware but not the rest of country," he said.
Delaware may see the first deployment of SmartCash.
Bank of America, with 10 million debit card holders and 2,000 branches, is conducting an in-house smart card pilot and is issuing the cards for Visa's employee test at its San Francisco headquarters.
Martha Campbell, senior vice president for interactive banking, said the joint venture gives the San Francisco-based bank "ground-floor involvement in developing the infrastructure and products" related to smart cards.
"We're aware of the importance of critical mass for building acceptance, which made us want to work with this group," she said. She pointed out that the member banks have issued 25% of the automated teller machine cards in the nation.
Fred M. Winkler, senior vice president, card products for First Union Corp., said SmartCash can be one of many approaches: "We're trying to ensure we offer the consumer whatever he or she wants."
He said consumers will have brand preferences for stored value cards just as they do for credit cards. For bankers, participating in as many experiments as possible can help "make sure you're not locking yourself out of the marketplace."
Mark Ricci, senior vice president of customer access and information at NationsBank, said it's impossible to know which technology will be the "ultimate winner." But "the right players are lined up in this venture to make it a very viable opportunity."
"It makes sense for banks to go along and listen to what's being presented," said Tim Jones, chief executive of Mondex, the electronic cash venture of National Westminster Bank of London. "But what are they actually committing to?"