MasterCard Inc. said its upcoming text-message transfer service will give it an early lead in the emerging mobile payment market.
The Purchase, N.Y., company said Wednesday that its Mobile MasterCard MoneySend service will go live as soon as this month, initially using prepaid cards issued by Bancorp Bank, a unit of the $1.8 billion-asset Bancorp Inc. in Wilmington, Del.
"I think this is something that is really going to take off," said Art Kranzley, MasterCard's chief emerging technology officer.
When MasterCard announced plans in June of last year to enter the mobile P-to-P market, Kranzley said some bankers were already requesting such a service. This week he said there is "quite a bit" of interest from bankers that want to offer the service.
More issuers will begin offering the service this year and next, he said.
The announcement underscores the emphasis MasterCard is putting on mobile payments. It said in March that it would offer contactless stickers that consumers can attach to their wireless handsets, in conjunction with Blaze Mobile Inc.
The mobile service lets people transfer money between accounts. If the sender and receiver both bank at companies enrolled in Mobile MasterCard MoneySend, the funds can move directly between the users' MasterCard credit or debit accounts, he said.
The system also enables a user to initiate a payment to any mobile phone number with text messaging, a mobile browser, a mobile applet or an Internet-connected computer, because MasterCard is working with Obopay Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., Kranzley said. "Obopay has the connectivity with the mobile network operators throughout the U.S."
Obopay offers its service directly to consumers, using Bancorp Bank as the issuer of a card that ties the mobile service to real-world point of sale transactions. Citigroup Inc. also has been integrating Obopay technology into its retail services.
MasterCard's service is a departure from the credit and debit processing for which it is known, Kranzley said. "It is a money transfer service. It is different from what we usually do."
As such, MasterCard will let banks opt in to offering it — another departure from the company's customary procedures.
Richard K. Crone, the founder of Crone Consulting LLC in San Carlos, Calif., said the mobile payment market is moving very quickly.
"MasterCard is now in the lead position to start enrolling customers for mobile features," he said. "The bottom line is it's moving really fast. If you're a bank, you can't wait. You've got to start defining your mobile commerce strategy now."
However, Kranzley said his company is moving carefully. For instance, MasterCard and Bancorp Bank are adding the final terms and conditions to the bank's Web site, and they plan to test the service for at least a few weeks with bank employees. "Then it will open up" for broader enrollment.
And even though MasterCard expects the service to be available by the end of the month, "we're not committing to that date," he said.
Terrence Crowley, a senior vice president at Bancorp Bank, expressed enthusiasm for the transfer service and said MasterCard's prudence is appropriate as it introduces this emerging technology to a broader market.
"If it's going to be an established name making an innovation that we think is going to be a game changer, then we want to be sure we've got all our bases covered," Crowley said. "We have a long history of working with innovators. We're all about locating and accelerating good ideas."
Bancorp Bank, primarily a business bank working with companies and their principals in the Philadelphia-Wilmington area, offers a variety of private-label and prepaid cards nationally. It began issuing Obopay prepaid cards in September, and it says it has more than 300 national partners for these products.
Crowley said the bank was an early sponsor of PayPal before it became the dominant payment system for eBay Inc.'s auctions.
"I've been in this business a long time, and I've seen a lot of ideas. Some go big, some go little, and some go sideways," he said. "We saw PayPal in its early stages. This could be bigger than PayPal."
Though this is MasterCard's first commercial mobile P-to-P offering in the United States, the company says such transfers are available in 17 countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India and the Philippines.