A start-up technology firm has won a broad patent over the use of automated teller machine technology for home banking services.
With the patent, top officials of Online Resources and Communications Corp. of McLean, Va., have staked a claim as the inventors and owners of the concept of using ATM networks and security controls to operate a home banking service.
While such a coupling of ATM technology and home banking is rare now, many bankers believe it will be common-place in the future.
May Raise 'Obstacles'
But, to move in this direction,, bankers may have to grapple with the Online patent, industry officials said.
"On the face, it seems as though it could raise some obstacles, although we'll have to wait until our patent attorneys review it," said David A. O'Connor, chief executive of Internet Inc., which runs the Most ATM network.
The Online patent was granted June 15.
Online, a privately held vendor which has only been in business for a couple of years, sells a home banking service bureau now used by MNC Financial Corp. to offer home banking services to its customers.
Two credit unions, Combined Science Technology and Research Federal Credit Union, also known as Comstar, of Gaithersburg, Md., and Eastman Credit Union, of Kingsport, Tenn., also have struck agreements with Online.
Banking over the Phone
The patent basically covers the way Online's business operates.
As part of its service, Online supplies telephones with screen displays to bank customers, who use the phones to pay bills, check account balances, and move funds between accounts.
Later this year, Online plans to let customers buy mutual funds and other investment products over the phones.
For security, consumers must enter their ATM personal identification numbers into the phones before doing any transactions.
ATM executives said that many companies are looking to process transactions through ATM networks, using an approach similar to Online's.
Such a combination of home banking and ATM technology could let home banking services benefit from the economies of scale and sophisticated security controls of ATM networks.
But companies considering such a marriage would be well-advised to study the Online patent, said Arthur S. Kranzley, president of Task Inc., a bank technology consulting firm in Westmont, N.J.
"This is a very awesome patent," Mr. Kranzley said. "It covers a great deal of ground."
One group that may have to pay particularly close attention to the development is MasterCard International, which is teaming with Checkfree Corp. of Westerville, Ohio, to roll out a new home banking service bureau, called MasterBanking.
The MasterBanking service bureau calls for Checkfree to process electronic bill payments, and for MasterCard to market the service and process other transactions.
Checkfree plans to start using the Cirrus ATM network, which MasterCard operates, to expedite the delivery of bill payments.
But, depending upon how the link is engineered, it could be covered by the Online patent.
This means that either Checkfree or MasterCard may have to get permission from Online to incorporate Cirrus into MasterBanking, said Matthew P. Lawlor, Online's president, and one of two inventors listed on the Online patent.
"We're going to defend our patent" Mr. Lawlor said. "We did invent it."
Mr. Lawlor added, however, that he does not yet know of any entity violating the patent. He also said that Online plans to be "reasonable" about licensing the invention to others.
Michael M. Sapienza, a Checkfree vice president, said the Online patent "doesn't present any stumbling blocks with what we are doing with MasterCard." But he declined to comment further.