Alltel Corp. has teamed up with Seagull, a Dutch software firm, to develop wireless Internet banking technology.
Alltel, which sells core data processing and banking software to 450 community banks through its information services group, has committed an undisclosed amount of money and human resources to the effort. The aim is to build systems using devices such as mobile digital phones, personal digital assistants, pagers, and TV set-top boxes
An initial goal is to develop "proof of concept" software that would let community bank customers check account balances or transfer funds using handheld wireless devices. From there the companies would bring a product to market.
"The whole world is heading very rapidly toward leveraging Internet-based wireless technology to transact business," said Gary Norcross, senior vice president at Little Rock-based Alltel.
Though wireless banking is still "a futuristic service," it is rapidly losing that distinction as the world adopts wireless devices, said Avivah Litan, an analyst at GartnerGroup Inc. in Stamford, Conn.
The number of cell phone subscribers in the United States has grown to 86 million in the past five years, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in Washington.
GartnerGroup predicts that between 2003 and 2005, the number of mobile phones deployed worldwide will exceed one billion, easily outnumbering personal computers. By 2004, the research firm says, 70% of new cellular phones and 80% of new personal digital assistants will have some form of Internet connection.
Seagull, whose North American offices are in Atlanta, develops software that lets banks and other entities create graphical user interfaces to legacy mainframe systems. Mainframes are the backbone of the corporate world - 70% of businesses around the globe use them, said Kim Addington, a senior vice president at Seagull.
Seagull, which had revenue of $30 million last year, will focus on wireless technology development, moving mainframe applications to the Internet, while Alltel will contribute its large list of banking customers. Seagull specializes in a "noninvasive" approach to creating new applications for legacy systems.
Wireless banking applications are "just one more way to do the same kinds of things that banking customers want to do," Ms. Addington said. "Two years from now this will pave the way for things that we can't even conceive of."
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association is closely monitoring the use of wireless technology in the United States, said Stacey O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the industry trade group.
Mercantile Bancorp of St. Louis has developed wireless automated teller machines for use on riverboat casinos, Ms. O'Brien said. "The technology is appropriate for state fairs," during natural disasters, or for more remote areas of nation where communication networks are less developed, she said.
Mr. Norcross said wireless banking is inevitable even though banks are grappling to develop multiple distribution channels for their products and services. It will become an important ancillary offering to Internet service, operating independent of banks' call centers, he said.
Call center transactions still entail human interaction, incurring costs to banks of about 50 cents per transaction; wireless transactions would be automated and cost them about 5 cents per transaction, Mr. Norcross said.
"We see this as the next wave that people will want to embrace once banks get their strategy around the Internet honed and in place," he said. "Through wireless you can check balances and transfer funds without having to talk to anyone at the call center, so it is just a natural extension of Internet banking."