Mondex Canada has scheduled a formal opening Thursday for its long-awaited market trial in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

The opening, including various public events and media briefings, was originally planned for last year, according to statements made in March 1998 when the smart card organization announced the selection of Sherbrooke.

At that time, the first Canadian Mondex experiment, in the Ontario university town of Guelph, was still going strong, and the company was talking about yet another implementation in Kingston, Ontario. But as in the United States banking community, which was discouraged by a test on New York's Upper West Side that closed early in 1999, more questions were raised about the business case for smart card technology.

A decision followed to close the 12,000-card Guelph trial and concentrate on the more advanced Multos operating system in new deployments.

Mondex has been preparing for months to declare Sherbrooke open, with two financial institutions principally involved: Royal Bank of Canada and the credit-union-like Caisses Desjardins. Together they have a dominant share of the local banking market, seen as an advantage in encouraging merchants and consumers to accept their brand of electronic cash.

The companies have kept quiet about the scale of the trial and anticipated participation, pending Thursday's launch. A press conference will cover those details as well as longer-term plans in Canada, a spokeswoman said.

Canada has been considered a bellwether for Mondex, an invention of Natwest Group in London that became a 51%-owned subsidiary of MasterCard International in 1997. Virtually the entire Canadian financial community, MasterCard and Visa loyalists alike, bought into their country's Mondex franchise. They declared the effort in Guelph, spearheaded by Royal Bank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, a success, though mainly in terms of lessons that could be applied elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in Barrie, Ontario, a two-year-old Visa Cash program reportedly thrives under the aegis of the only dual smart card bank, Bank of Nova Scotia. It said last week that three chain merchants -- Sam the Record Man, KFC fried chicken, and Cineplex Odeon -- are participating in a program that combines loyalty points with cash on the cards.

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