"The ATM in the home," a subject of much talk and some testing, has become a reality at a U.S. military installation.
The Armed Forces Financial Network has upgraded a smart card program at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu to allow participants to load cash value into their cards through devices attached to personal computers.
Remote loading was already familiar to holders of the ease card, the centerpiece of a multifunction program for the Hickam community much like the closed-circuit systems on college campuses. Launched in November, the program includes eight on-base, ATM-like kiosks for putting cash on cards' chips. The kiosk capability has simply been extended into homes and offices.
The cards are accepted at more than 40 cash-oriented merchant sites on the Hawaii base, including Burger King, dry cleaners, video rental stores, and barber shops, and at about the same number of vending machines. The cards are also usable at base exchange stores, and cardholders can carry small balance-checking readers on their key chains.
Armed Forces Financial Network-AFFN-is considering the addition of a merchant-loyalty program.
Home loading and Internet-delivered cash are elements in the design of MasterCard International's Mondex program, Visa Cash, and others around the world. The Hickam version of the service went live last month.
"Once merchants and consumers were accustomed to the idea of a stored- value card, 'HomeLoad' was the first feature we wanted to add," said David O. Weber, vice president of AFFN in Tampa, which operates automated teller machines and point of sale terminals at and around more than 320 military installations.
The Hickam installation is the first use of the CardTouch Architecture from Touch Technology International. This Phoenix company did much of the smart card development work for Electronic Payment Services Inc. of Wilmington, Del., and now owns the technology.
The HomeLoad option for military people and their families delivers what computer vendors, smart card makers, and software companies like Hewlett- Packard Co., Gemplus Group, and Microsoft Corp. have been talking about for two years in a committee called the PC/SC Workgroup.
Hewlett-Packard's Verifone subsidiary developed a handheld smart card device that hooks into telephone lines, called Personal ATM, which reportedly is being supplied in the thousands to Citibank customers participating in a New York City pilot. A similar Verifone product, PayPort, is designed to hook in to the serial port on a personal computer.
"The ability to load value from home or work always has been one of the big promises of smart card technology, but very few programs actually support the option," said Mr. Weber of AFFN.
He said that 80% of "military officers have home computers. They are very familiar with the technology and are at home using the Internet."
William L. Powar, principal of Venture Architects in Palo Alto, Calif., said a military base is ideally suited to a closed-system smart card in that many people spend a lot of time in a restricted area with merchants ready and willing to accept electronic cash payments.
"The key difficulty is the economics of providing smart cards in the home" as opposed to public places, Mr. Powar said.
The list price for the Innovonics PC 2000 home reader is $75. AFFN, still coming to grips with the economics and pricing options, is distributing initial units free.
"First of all, we want to prove the concept works in a live mode," Mr. Weber said.
"Early feedback is that the bigger demand is going to be in the office rather than the home," said John Kloos, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Touch Technology International.
In offices, groups of employees would have the use of one card-reading unit, making the equipment more cost-effective.
About 5,000 cards and a still undetermined number of portable readers are expected to be distributed by yearend for both homes and offices.
The Innovonics device has a magnetic stripe reader and keypad for personal identification numbers. The cardholder must swipe the card and connect to a Web site in order to take advantage of HomeLoad or to check the card's balance.
To load value from a bank account, the consumer must swipe his regular ATM card and punch in the PIN number. After the cash is downloaded, a receipt can be printed out.
Cardholders can also print out statements detailing their last 10 transactions.
Hickam Federal Credit Union and the Hickam branch of First Hawaiian Bank distribute the ease cards, but AFFN operates the HomeLoad system.
"The real beauty of this program is that a financial institution doesn't need to be (directly) involved in the home loading aspect," said Cindy Geiling, the credit union's vice president of operations.
"It has been a very easy process for us," said Ms. Geiling, "because we are just a distributor of the card and that requires very little inventory control because there is no initial value on them."
Anyone with an ATM card from one of the 215 financial institutions that work with AFFN may download cash via the Internet or use the smart card kiosks or mini-ATMs at Hickam Air Force Base.
The ease card can be loaded with a maximum of $100. Since November, the average purchase has cost $5, and the average load was of $50.
Mr. Weber said one of its appeals to people is as a budgeting or expense-discipline tool. Some give the cards to children as an allowance.
The stored-value service functions as cash and has no PIN security at the point of purchase, and the card is not replaceable if lost or stolen.
Mr. Weber said a PIN feature could be included but would add to point of sale transaction time.
"If people want a higher-value card with a higher level of security, we will find that out," said Mr. Weber. "But we don't want to do too much too quickly."
In an echo from the Upper West Side pilot in New York, Ms. Geiling said some merchants are not adjusting as easily to the system as had been hoped. They might forget to recharge their $500 battery-operated countertop units overnight or neglect to put them back out in the morning.
Mr. Kloos said AFFN sends service people into the field to give a consistent level of merchant support, "but changing behavior always takes time."