With visually impaired people around the country demanding equal access to automated teller machines, PNC Financial Services Group Inc. has agreed to test an unusual and inexpensive solution.

The company would provide cell phones for five such customers to talk with specially trained phone representatives who would talk them through ATM transactions. The testing is part of a tentative settlement reached Jan. 4 after 18 months of litigation.

Under pressure from advocacy groups, many other large banking companies have agreed to install large numbers of expensive "talking ATMs," which provide information by headphone. PNC says the cell-phone solution would be much cheaper.

Participating customers could use their own cell phones to call the special toll-free service line. Others would be provided with phones that could call only that number or 911.

The customers would not be charged extra, and the company noted that its 3,000 ATMs would not have to be rebuilt or enhanced with expensive features.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say U.S. District Court Judge Donetta Ambrose in Pittsburgh is expected to approve the settlement imminently. PNC would then start a 30-day test involving the two plaintiffs, Christine Hunsinger and Mark Senk, and three other visually impaired customers, said Mark Murphy, an attorney with the Disabilities Law Project, the nonprofit Pittsburgh law firm that represented the plaintiffs.

PNC says it would be the first bank holding company to enter into such an arrangement.

Companies that have agreed to install talking ATMs generally install the necessary hardware and software at one machine in each location. Bank of America Corp. has begun installing the first of what it promises will be 2,500 talking ATMs in California and Florida. Wells Fargo & Co. says it will deploy 1,500 in California by 2003, and U.S. Bancorp, which already has a few in Minneapolis, says it will place more in the West and Midwest.

PNC says its answer to the problem is better.

The primary advantage is "the human element," said Patrick McMahon, a PNC spokesman. "Talking ATMs offer one-way communication, while we're offering two-way communication, giving customers peace of mind, because a phone representative from the bank is able to confirm each and every ATM transaction."

In their suit, Ms. Hunsinger and Mr. Senk said the ATMs owned and operated by PNC are inaccessible to the visually impaired. The braille letters that appear next to some ATM buttons do not convey what is on the screen, and most blind people do not read braille anyway, the suit said.

Mr. Murphy said that the people participating in the initial test will offer their observations, and a broader pilot phase will follow, probably in late March or early April.

PNC said it does not know how many visually impaired customers it has, but Mr. McMahon said it plans to recruit at least 50 for the broader test, which will involve 250 ATMs in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"Phone representatives will know these denoted ATMs inside out," he said. "If something goes wrong during a transaction, the representative will be able to immediately identify the problem and talk the customer through the entire process."

PNC has not decided how many phone reps will take part in the tests, Mr. McMahon said. The goal is to provide cell phone access to the bank's entire ATM network, he said.

Mr. Murphy said that PNC committed to a six-month period of developing and piloting the use of cell phones for ATM access. "My clients decided that they are willing to give cell phones a try and test it. Everyone will reserve judgment until after the six-month period. It may work out well, and it may work out terribly."

From Our Archive:

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.