A few years ago, bankers were writing obituaries for the concept of television banking. Now, some of them are writing birth notices.
The idea of letting people conduct banking transactions using the remote control of their television set - or a keyboard or other plug-in device - has long been tantalizing. Just about everyone watches television (whether or not they admit it), and some bankers think that people who do not want to bank over the telephone or by personal computer might find the simplicity and familiarity of the television appealing.
Pilots of interactive television banking have flopped in North America, but the advent of the Internet and smart cards seems to have brought new expectations. MasterCard International says it and a partner company, FutureTV Ltd. of London, are testing television banking in the United Kingdom, and will usher in service in the United States within 18 months.
First Hawaiian Bank of Honolulu, a BancWest Corp. subsidiary, has been talking to a Hawaiian cable company about a digital TV banking service of its own. One technology think tank, IDC of Framingham, Mass., made a prediction this month that activations of Internet-enabled televisions will increase from one million in 1999 to 10 million in 2004.
At least two British banking companies - Abbey National PLC and HSBC Holdings PLC - are letting customers conduct banking transactions through their televisions. Executives at those banks say they think digital television is better than the Internet for bringing remote banking to the masses.
"Interactive TV is an excellent opportunity for banks," said Mary Joy Scafidi, senior research analyst for IDC's consumer devices program. Banks, she said, could do target marketing to various cable network subscribers. "It's definitely something that banks should be researching or considering, developing some enhanced Web pages that could be displayed on the TV," she said.
MasterCard is working with cable companies and makers of set-top boxes on a system that would let people conduct all kinds of payment and banking transactions by putting a smart card into a set-top box.
"You could order up pay-TV shows and pay right off your card," said Arthur D. Kranzley, senior vice president of electronic commerce and emerging technologies at MasterCard. "You could download loyalty points or dollars, transfer money from your bank account onto the card, move money from one account into another, access a digital wallet for payment, or buy things over the TV."
In the world as MasterCard envisions it, cable boxes will come with smart card readers, and somebody watching a television commercial could put a card in the box and buy the merchandise instantly. Or the consumer who was watching football, say, could go to a sports Web site and download tickets onto the card. People could use the TV to pay bills or look at credit card statements.
High-definition television, which has already hit the United States, would make the pictures crisper and the experience more compelling. HDTV, as it is known, is still in fairly limited use - the sets are very expensive and digital programming is limited. Advocates of the technology have high expectations, but bankers do not consider HDTV important to their industry.
"I have not seen nor heard any groundswell as of late with HDTV putting any impetus behind bank-by-television," said Russ Wehrlin, a bank technology consultant at Speer & Associates in Atlanta. "Personally, if I were speaking to a banker about whether or not they should look into it, that would be pretty low on the priority pole."
Even if television banking does take off, HDTV will not be the catalyst, Mr. Wehrlin predicted. Banks would be wise to "provide multidevice access to customers, and not really bet on any one alternative device out there," he said.
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