MasterCard International said Thursday that it expects to launch its electronic debit-card program in the United States by the middle of next year.

The program, known as Maestro, allows consumers to pay for goods and services with cards that debit their checking accounts within seconds.

Although MasterCard was known to be working on Maestro internationally, the timing of the plan in the United States had been unclear. The association said Thursday that the first U.S. transaction will take place during the first half of 1992.

Tied to Regional Networks

MasterCard plans to offer Maestro in alliance with operators of regional electronic funds transfer systems, such as NYCE, Pulse, and MAC. Banks belonging to the network will put the Maestro logo on their automated teller machine cards.

"The tough work now is pulling together the various organizations region by region around the world," said MasterCard president Alex W. Hart. "It will take a little time, but we're off to a good start."

In the United States, the association announced, the program will be administered by a new organization with its own board, Maestro USA. This is to be founded by MasterCard and the National Interchange Network, which represents certain regional ATM networks and their member banks.

The board, which will include representatives of regional networks, financial institutions, and MasterCard, is now addressing issues such as pricing and operating rules.

MasterCard's rival, Visa U.S.A., is also pursuing on-line debit cards, and in June bought a large point-of-sale network in the West to advance the plan.

Both MasterCard and Visa already offer "off-line" debit cards. But the transfer of funds with these cards is delayed, which reduces their appeal to some retailers and makes it possible for consumers to draw on insufficient funds.

MasterCard plans to make Maestro its main debit card.

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