Digicash Inc. of the Netherlands has struck an agreement to make its digital cash system available through EUnet, Europe's leading Internet service provider.
Digicash's Ecash, designed for low-cost purchases over the Internet, made its debut this week in Finland, where the largest bank, Merita, has begun allowing depositors to move money from regular accounts into a virtual "purse" of digital coins. They can use these coins to buy goods from six participating merchants.
The development represents a significant inroad for Digicash in Europe. It had previously licensed Ecash to Sweden Post, a postal agency which owns a bank. Sweden Post has yet to begin operating Ecash.
In the United States, Ecash is available through Mark Twain Bancshares of St. Louis, which launched a modest experiment last fall. Merchants have been slow to sign on.
The Finnish advance is "big news," said Daniel M. Eldridge, Digicash's vice president of Ecash business development, based in New York. "It's a further deployment of Ecash in the hands of users" and brings the system closer to having "a critical mass of people doing electronic commerce."
Merita is offering Ecash to three million account holders in the most widespread commercial availability of the product to date. Participants include the Finnish Securities and Derivatives Exchange and Clearing House, which is selling stock quotes, and a popular newspaper and magazine.
EUnet, which provides Internet services in 41 countries, chose Finland for the Ecash launch because it is second in the world to Australia in the number of Internet connections per capita, said Graham Wilson, marketing manager for EUnet Amsterdam. The Web server intends to roll out Ecash "in other countries when we have the need for it."
EUnet also plans to market Ecash to international travelers, who could use the digital coins to pay for local Internet hookups.
Mr. Wilson said that EUnet - which also works with Checkfree, the U.S. electronic bill-payment company - found the anonymity of Digicash's payment system attractive.
"We want to offer the most forward-thinking technology," Mr. Wilson said.
Ecash has not generated as much interest in the United States as competing concepts like Cybercash and First Virtual because it is seen as "overengineered for what's necessary," said David E. Weisman, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.