American Express Co. has signed an agreement to license smart card technology from Banksys, a company owned by 60 Belgian banks.

The deal has been the subject of card industry rumors for more than a month. The rumors have been accompanied by reports that MasterCard International would acquire Mondex, the British stored value system, and that Visa U.S.A. would invest in SmartCash, a system developed by Electronic Payment Services Inc., owner of the MAC network.

American Express is the first major card company to acquire or license a stored value program, said Dan Cunningham, senior vice president of Phoenix Planning and Evaluation, a Rockville, Md.-based consulting firm.

Within two months, he said, "We could have three competing worldwide stored value systems, which is pretty exciting."

The New York-based financial services giant said it would use the Banksys smart card system, called Proton, to develop multiple-application programs for the travel and entertainment sectors, its most lucrative business.

David Boyles, senior vice president and head of American Express' smart card center in Utah, would not discuss specific plans. But he said the company would "test products in a wise and logical way to meet customers' specific needs."

Proton, developed by Banksys in 1995, is in a pilot or rollout phase in seven countries including Canada, where Toronto Dominion Bank, Bank of Montreal, and Canada Trust are launching the Exact program. Five other countries are negotiating with Banksys.

Proton, which experts consider one of the world's leading smart card programs, is mainly used for stored value applications. Mr. Boyles said American Express and Banksys will quickly adapt the technology to perform multiple tasks.

American Express began discussions with Banksys regarding the agreement in December of 1995. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The agreement is global and nonexclusive for both parties. "This may be one of many technologies American Express utilizes," Mr. Boyles said.

The company is testing a ticketless travel card with American Airlines and International Business Machines Corp. and has a stored value pilot program in operation on the U.S.S. Yorktown. It began testing a multiple- application smart card at its headquarters in the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan in December.

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