DUBLIN -- European bankers say they clearly see the future of Internet banking, and it is wireless.
Their vision benefits from a number of factors, including the emergence on the Continent of a widely accepted telecommunications standard, and the broad distribution of mobile devices. In the United States, by contrast, personal computers reign as the main devices for connecting to the Internet, and wireless standards are notably absent.
Bankers in Europe acknowledge there is a lot of work to do before mobile banking becomes a mass-market service. But the groundwork is being laid. Moreover, they said, U.S. banks could catch up quickly if they put their minds to it.
The biggest provider of mobile banking abroad is MeritaNordenbanken in Helsinki, Finland. Nearly all its customers have mobile phones, according to Bo Harald, executive vice president responsible for network banking services, but fewer than 10% are banking by mobile phone. "I think it will take a couple of years," Mr. Harald said.
Expectations are high on both sides of the Atlantic. Citigroup Inc. is making a big push toward wireless banking, approaching telecommunications companies around the world to sign deals that will set the stage for the service.
Meridien Research Inc., a Needham, Mass., technology consulting firm, predicts that by 2003, more than 70% of major European financial institutions will be offering mobile financial services. That compares with only 30% for financial institutions in North America, a reflection of the lack of a uniform standard here, said Dana Stiffler, a Meridien analyst.
But the vast majority of wireless rollouts in Europe -- where conditions couldn't be riper -- still are in the pilot stage, and such insight may give U.S. banks reason to temper their expectations of this hotly pursued technology.
Part of the problem, Mr. Harald said, is that European phone manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with demand for phones based on the Wireless Application Protocol. That standard is expected in Europe to replace Global Standard for Mobile communications, or GSM, which has been prevalent.
Merita, with $130 billion of assets, is the largest bank in Scandinavia. Mr. Harald says it is the only bank in the world that is beyond the pilot stage in offering WAP-based banking, which he says is "easy and fast."
Merita began developing a WAP service about a year ago with Nokia, the Finnish phone company. The bank ran a pilot last summer and rolled out the service in October. Merita has offered some wireless services since 1992 but did not see them take off until 1997, when two-way short messaging was introduced.
Now the view at Merita is that "wireless banking is an integrated part of wired banking," Mr. Harald said.
Merita's WAP service lets its customers make account transfers and domestic payments; check on loans, stock portfolios, and investment funds; pay bills from ten companies; and send and receive electronic mail. They can also access a shopping mall with 1,000 merchants.
Equity trading, introduced in January, "is a killer application," Mr. Harald said. "People are on the move, and can still place orders actively."
Beginning this month, the bank will let customers in Finland make foreign payments through their WAP phones. By summer, Merita will extend the service to its customers in Sweden. Future enhancements would include applying for loans and checking credit card accounts.
Merita also plans a pilot test with Visa International that would let customers make wireless credit card purchases using miniature chip cards inserted into WAP phones.
Several European banks, including Svenska Handelsbanken in Sweden, Banesto (Banco Espanol de Credito) and Bankinter of Spain, Bank of Scotland in the United Kingdom, and Banco Espirito Santo of Portugal, are still testing WAP phones.
Handelsbanken plans to introduce full-scale WAP banking using technology from International Business Machines Corp. on April 14. The service will let customers receive stock market information, view account balances and recent transactions, and transfer money between their own accounts and those of predefined third parties, said Lars Gronstedt, executive vice president at Handelsbanken.
Allied Irish Banks in Dublin plans to make WAP-based banking services available this summer, said Kay Hughes, strategic channels development manager. It has teamed with the Irish mobile phone operator Eircell to let customers view their bank and credit card balances, and recent transaction details. To use the service AIB customers must install a free Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card from Eircell in their mobile phones.
"Europe is the epicenter of wireless and the mobile Internet," said Michael Lawrie, general manager at IBM for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, at a recent conference in Paris.
By rallying around WAP, manufacturers such as Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson helped boost the adoption of wireless services in Europe, said Niall O'Cleirigh, chief executive officer and founder of two-year-old Macalla Software Ltd. of Dublin.
"You can't have mobile commerce without the handsets that support it," said Mr. O'Cleirigh, whose company offers software for developing mobile banking and brokerage applications.
Mr. O'Cleirigh predicted that U.S. banks would move toward WAP-based systems in the next year and a half. Because "financial transactions are personal," he said, consumers favor conducting them through closely held mobile phones, rather than through PCs at work.
"Generally, Europe is leading the United States," said AIB's Ms. Hughes. "But the tide may be turning because it doesn't take Americans long to build critical mass."