The Global Chipcard Alliance has bolstered its claim on smart card industry leadership with a new technical initiative and the addition of its 28th member company.

The technical initiative, known as Netuser Identifier Module, would go a long way toward creating a "smart card dial tone" that would enable any card to be accepted in any terminal.

The new member is Visa International, the last of the Big Three financial card organizations not at least indirectly represented.

American Express Co. became a principal member in May 1997, seven months after the alliance was organized by Bell Canada, KPN Telecom of the Netherlands, Telekom Malaysia, and U S West.

MasterCard International has not joined, but one of its smart card affiliates, Mondex USA, became a participating member this year.

David Anastasi, the alliance's president and a U S West executive in Seattle, has been working feverishly with other leaders to expand the membership base beyond telecommunications. That tends to enhance the credibility and impact of efforts like Netuser Identifier Module that cross industry lines.

"Visa's decision to join the GCA demonstrates the broad cross-industry support essential in providing an open global environment where smart card advancement can flourish," Mr. Anastasi said Monday as Visa International announced it had become a principal member.

Visa's joining "will go a long way to expanding GCA's scope," said William J. Barr, president of the Smart Card Forum, the U.S.-based multi- industry group that has been building its own ties to the alliance.

"It was a big step when American Express joined," said Mr. Barr, executive director of information networking at Bellcore, Morristown, N.J. "This says something about the amount of openness the GCA is striving for."

Visa senior vice president Jean McKenna, past president of the Smart Card Forum, said, "We share the GCA's vision of globally compatible smart card technology that will allow customers to use their cards anywhere in the world."

The membership could help Visa spread its influence over standardization. Visa promotes the Visa Open Platform for smart cards, based on the Java programming language, and CEPS-Common Electronic Purse Specifications. CEPS is also backed by Proton World International, which Visa co-owns with American Express and Banksys of Belgium, another chipcard alliance member.

Mr. Barr said he views the Smart Card Forum and the Global Chipcard Alliance as complementary. They agree on interoperability principles, but the forum has a mainly educational mission. The alliance has firm implementation goals. Netuser Identifier Module, or NIM, which was announced last week and will be presented during a three-day alliance meeting starting today in Seattle, underscores how the group aims to replicate telephone concepts like dial tone and roaming in the smart card world.

"Essentially, the NIM will enable a consumer's smart card data to be identified at local terminals worldwide," Mr. Anastasi said. "When a local terminal does not initially recognize a smart card from a different provider, it will ask for the NIM application."

After querying the NIM, the network would contact the home application source, which would make it possible to handle the given application even if it were not previously loaded into the card-reading terminal.

Aside from the technological identifier, the system would depend on interchange or "roaming agreements" similar to those between cellular phone companies or automated teller machine networks to ensure something close to universal access. Theoretically, a bank-issued electronic purse card could be accepted in a public telephone, or a phone card could be accepted in a retail store.

In defining the communication between a card and a terminal, NIM is similar to EMV, a standard that the Europay, MasterCard, and Visa associations agreed on for point of sale acceptance. But EMV applies to a relatively narrow range of financial transactions, and NIM could run the full gamut of chip card services.

"They are coming at this from the direction of the terminal, not the application," said Tom Lebsack, director of marketing, multiple applications, Schlumberger Smart Cards & Terminals. "It's a great idea."

He said Visa Cash and other smart card programs in Europe have shown that terminal interoperability is achievable. "It depends on the right people getting together and agreeing on specifications," Mr. Lebsack said.

"These are groundbreaking strides for interoperability, and the GCA is leading the way," said Michael Killen, head of Killen & Associates, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based research firm. "The NIM application concept will give consumers passage to a new world where telephone, banking, medical, and other smart card applications are readily accessible at the drop of a card. "Users will be able to access their personalized applications and solutions wherever they are in the world by tapping into the power of global networks."

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