Operators of automated teller machine networks are bracing for costly upgrades now that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has said it plans to redesign the country's money to make banknotes easier for the blind and visually impaired to tell apart.
The agency has not decided how to change the notes, or when, but it is preparing to study its options.
Claudia W. Dickens, an Engraving and Printing spokeswoman, said by e-mail last week that the agency will soon open up a 90-day period public comment period to address the issue.
When the comment period ends, the bureau will submit formal recommendations for new currency designs to the Treasury secretary. Dickens would not say when the comment period is expected to begin, but once the bureau determines the date it will be published in the Federal Register, she said.
Observers said the options likeliest to be considered are changing the size or color of the different notes. Adding braille to bills is less likely.
The changes are almost certain to mean significant expenses for the independent sales organizations that operate ATM networks and will need to upgrade their machines.
Cardtronics Inc., one of the nation's largest ATM operators, said in its 2009 annual report, issued last week, that "participants in the ATM industry (including us) could be forced to upgrade current machines' hardware and software components depending on the nature of the modifications proposed by" the Treasury.
Cardtronics owned or managed 33,165 machines at yearend in the U.S., U.K. and Mexico. The company would not estimate how much it might cost to upgrade the more than 18,000 U.S. ATMs it owns.
If the engraving bureau decides to print differently sized $5, $20, $50 and $100 notes, ATMs will have to be upgraded.
"It will cost $3,000 to $5,000 per machine, installing banknote-holding canisters and new cash dispensers," said James Hanisch, an executive vice president at Co-op Financial Services, which manages a 28,000-ATM network for credit unions.
There are roughly 225,000 bank-owned ATMs in the United States, and another 240,000 machines owned by independent sales organizations.
JPMorgan Chase & Co., which operates the second-largest bank-owned ATM network (15,406 machines), "will be watching to see how a decision will affect our ATMs, but at this point, we just don't know enough," spokesman Tom Kelly said.
The move is not expected to add any major costs to the ATM makers, which ship their machines all over the world and already offer equipment for different types of notes in different countries.
"We see different banknotes in a number of countries, and we work with them," said James Phillips, the director of sales for North America at Triton Systems of Delaware, a Long Beach, Miss., maker of off-premise ATMs. "Our biggest expense involves testing banknotes in our ATMs to see if they are correctly dispensed. We also comment to various countries' treasury departments about their banknotes."
Bills in Canada and the United Kingdom differ in height and width and are brightly colored, to help the visually impaired identify them, Phillips said.
He said it is unlikely that Bureau of Engraving and Printing will decide to use braille. "Our research shows less than 10% of the blind and visually impaired read braille," he said. Moreover, U.S. banknotes are printed on a special blend of paper and cotton that cannot support the raised braille characters.
However, he noted that Canada is planning to convert its paper-and-cotton currency to a polymer blend, which would support braille. The U.S. could follow Canada's lead, though Engraving and Printing has not said anything about adopting polymer banknotes.
These changes are not unexpected. Bureau of Engraving and Printing signaled its intentions after the Treasury Department decided not to appeal a 2008 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the government had failed to provide meaningful access to U.S. banknotes for the blind and visually impaired.
Section 504 of the of U.S. Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination in government programs. The American Council of the Blind had brought the original lawsuit against the Treasury.
James Robertson, a district court judge, noted in a 2006 decision that only the United States uses identical sizes for all its bills.
Robertson's ruling requiring the government to revamp its currency does not apply to the $1 bill and will not affect the $100 bill, which Engraving and Printing is currently redesigning.
The $20 note is the one used most often in ATMs. In October 2003, Engraving and Printing began circulating a redesigned $20 bill, the first U.S. banknote that included colors other than black and green. The banknote incorporated peach and blue.
Dickens would not say whether any more changes will affect the $20 bill or whether it could be the first note to be revamped to help the blind and visually impaired.