Visa International has announced that its Australian smart card pilot is live; it thus takes the lead in its race with MasterCard International.

MasterCard, which was first to declare its plans for an Australian pilot - in Canberra, the federal capital - has not yet gone live. A spokeswoman predicted the first transaction would take place in the fourth quarter.

Both card associations said they have smart card pilots planned in all regions of the world, although specifics have not been released.

"I think the Australia tests are flawed. They're questionable," said Jerome Svigals, a smart card consultant based in Redwood City, Calif.

"This is not really a test of the smart card," he continued. "It's a test of the chip for stored value, which the Europeans have been doing for years with their telephone cards."

Visa is joined in its Melbourne, Australia, pilot by Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank, Westpac Banking Corp., and Credit Union Services Corp.

Each of the organizations plans to pilot the stored-value card with its own employees in corporate cafeterias. By the fourth quarter, Visa and its partners plan to take the pilot public. The San Francisco-based card association said it expects 1,000 merchants to take part and 150,000 cards to be issued.

Visa did not disclose how many merchants have committed themselves to the product.

Stored-value cards are designed as a cash replacement for small transactions such as fares for public transportation, parking meters, vending machines, newspapers, cigarettes, and fast food. Those are the merchants Visa hopes to attract for its test.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group started its in-house pilot last week. National Australia Bank will conduct its first transaction today.

The other participants are expected to follow shortly but have announced no timetable.

Visa says each participant will issue about 1,000 disposable cards. Later, reloadable cards will be added to the trial.

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