First Union Corp. is expected to announce today that it will become the latest big bank to offer its banking and brokerage customers wireless account access.
The Charlotte, N.C., company will test the services with a few thousand customers in early January and roll them out in the first quarter, said Parrish Arturi, senior vice president of online strategy marketing. Customers will be able to view account information, transfer funds, and read financial news and stock quotes. They will also be able to sign up to receive market alerts through two-way pagers and personal digital assistants.
Many experts are skeptical that consumers will take to wireless banking in a big way, but it has become a must-have among the major banks and brokerage companies. All the big-name online brokerages offer it, as do several of the most technologically sophisticated banks. Among the biggest commercial banks, Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., and Bank of Montreal seem to be the furthest along, but some small Internet-only banks have also made services available.
First Union is working with privately held w-Technologies Inc. (formerly w-Trade Technologies) of New York, which sells software that can handle 25 customizable, wireless applications. First Union is the first bank to publicly announce that it is working with w-Technologies, which says it has about 50 other clients. The bank is licensing the vendors wireless banking and brokerage software called w-Bank and w-Trade plus some others.
This summer First Union began offering online customers the chance to receive account-balance alerts through their pagers and other wireless devices, and 30,000 signed up. Through w-Technologies, it plans to extend this service. Customers will be able to execute trades, pay bills, and carry out other transactions using a variety of devices.
Research has shown us that there is significant growth in the number of folks who want quicker and easier ways to do brokerage and banking online, Mr. Arturi said. Were providing them with another opportunity.
First Union will offer the service to its 1.7 million customers who do their banking, bill payment, and brokerage online.
w-Technologies will host the service at several of its global data centers. First Union will initially offer it to U.S. customers but has the option to expand it internationally. It also plans to introduce additional wireless products to its corporate and small-business customers.
Donna Oliva, chief executive officer and co-founder of w-Technologies, said her company will announce several more partnerships, with middle-market banks, in the next few months.
W-Technologies other customers include FleetBoston Financial Corp.s Quick & Reilly discount brokerage, Merrill Lynch & Co., Dreyfus Corp., and Oppenheimer Funds. The software company can support 12 different data networks, 225 types of devices that use browser technology, and smart cards. We have partnerships with major telecommunication operators in the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Asia, Ms. Oliva said. Customers can use the device they already have.
Recently, she said, she has seen an increase in the number of wireless transactions taking place, as well as a significant increase in the number of businesses building mobile systems within their enterprises.
While First Union may be w-Technologies first big bank customer, several large banks have begun wireless initiatives. In September, KeyCorp. said it would start a four-to-six month pilot with 1,500 Key Bank Internet banking customers this quarter. At the end of August, Bank of America Corp. announced it had introduced mobile banking and brokerage to its private banking clients in Dallas/Fort Worth, Baltimore, and Washington and it would roll it out to other regions and customer groups in the next 12 to 18 months.
Wachovia Corp. said in July that it would aim its wireless services at the corporate market first and then retail customers. Citigroup is already offering wireless services in Europe and Asia, and plans to bring them to the United States. The first bank to offer wireless banking on a broad scale in the United States was Harris Bank in Chicago, the Bank of Montreal subsidiary.
Joseph Laszlo, senior analyst at Jupiter Communications, said more financial institutions are experimenting with mobile services and many will turn to a growing number of companies for outside help.
He said Jupiter views w-Technologies as one of the companies with real security expertise.
Another large tech company focused on financial services is 724 Solutions Inc. of Toronto, which is working with Citigroup, Bank of Montreal/Harris, Wells Fargo & Co., BBVA Bancomer of Mexico, Wachovia, Keycorp, and Claritybank.com. Aether Systems is among the other companies taking content and services to wireless devices.
Its still the early days, Mr. Laszlo said. These banks are jumping into the wireless market relatively early on, and its not clear yet if theyre too early. We have not seen customers choose a bank because it offers wireless.
He said many banks are making these announcements purely to gain experience, and to say they were there early. Were not sure yet what the payoff will be. Its for marketing purposes, and perhaps in two years time it may become valuable to say they were one of the first major institutions to offer wireless.