Wells Fargo & Co. is not letting an increasingly tepid attitude toward wireless services get in the way of an ambitious wireless-banking offering it introduced Wednesday.

The San Francisco banking company became the first to make wireless access available nationwide, through a service that lets customers check account balances and transaction histories, make transfers, get stock quotes and track securities using Sprint PCS cell phones or Palm VI handheld devices.

Wells’ service launching came as the U.S. wireless industry seems to be hitting a slowdown. Cell phone makers Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson have reduced their sales projections for this year, and many analysts say the wireless Internet is not taking off in the United States as quickly as expected. Some suggest consumers are not yet ready for the wireless Web; they point to problems such as wireless connection speeds, service costs, and the absence of a single network standard.

In addition, a survey in May by the consulting firm Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., on wireless banking showed that 45% of financial companies did not expect wireless access to provide incremental revenue. Thirty-two percent did, and 18% said they thought wireless access might boost revenues.

But Wells officials said they think they may have an advantage over other financial institutions offering wireless services — Bank of America, Harris Bank, Citibank, and others. Many institutions currently are offering their services on a regional basis or are still in pilot tests, and Citi is setting its sights globally before aggressively targeting the U.S. market.

Pamela Reed, a vice president in Wells Fargo’s consumer Internet services group, said ownership of cell phones among Wells’ 2.5 million online-banking customers is 1.5 times the national average for other banks. Ownership of personal digital assistants is 4.5 times higher than average. In addition, 23% to 26% of Wells’ retail customers bank online, Ms. Reed said, three times the national average for most U.S. banks.

Those figures, she said, bode well for Wells’ wireless services. “We went out and talked to our customers and asked them about wireless, and they were very interested,” she said.

A survey of 300 Wells employees and customers who tested the service during a pilot project in December and January indicated an overall satisfaction rate of 93%, Ms. Reed said. Eighty-two percent of users said they would recommend the service to others.

“I’ve been working on new products in banking for 20 years, and I’ve never seen such results from a survey,” she said. “It’s pretty much out of the ballpark for what I’ve seen on new-product introduction.”

Wells plans to roll out its wireless services on other carriers later this year, and add other applications, including ATM and branch locators and bill-payment and brokerage services, at an unspecified date. A unit of 1,000 customer service agents has been set up to support the new service.

Offering the service nationwide presented no major technological difficulties, Ms. Reed said. In fact, since Sprint and Palm services are offered across the nation, it would have been more challenging for Wells to offer wireless regionally, she said. In addition, Wells wanted to offer wireless services to all customers regardless of location, she said.

“The customers want it, and you have to be there,” she said. “We have a technology-leader position, and we prefer to maintain that.”

Maribel Donilov, a senior analyst at Forrester, said Wells’ nationwide launch comes as no surprise. Financial institutions want to offer customers the most convenience possible, she said, and that means services on as many channels and in as many locations as possible.

“This is more about being multichannel than being wireless,” she said. “Whether wireless is in vogue at the moment is not the issue. Wireless is all about a customer attention play. Wells wants to be everywhere its customers are.”

John Switzer, a vice president at the consulting firm AMS Canada Inc., said Wells’ nationwide reach would let it expand its potential market. “There could be some significant benefit in capturing more customer relationships,” he said.

Forrester’s survey found that 47% of respondents ranked customer retention as the top benefit of offering wireless, followed by simply having an offering (25%), customer acquisition (25%), and differentiation over competitors (22%).

Ms. Donilov said the success of Wells’ wireless service should not be gauged simply by usage. “It’s all about customer retention. If you look at online banking, for quite some time having 10% of your customers online was a big deal,” she said. “It’ll be a very similar trend on wireless.”

Wells’ wireless platform was developed in conjunction with Toronto-based 724 Solutions Inc., a mobile software provider. Greg Wolfond, founder and chief executive officer of 724 Solutions, said Wells is in a good position to capitalize on the wireless boom that is inevitably coming.

“There are 27 million mobile wireless subscribers in the world today, and over two and a half million in the U.S. already,” he said. “This whole market will grow at an astronomical rate.”


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