NEW YORK — AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA are exploring a joint venture to test out a mobile-payment service in select markets, according to people familiar with the situation.
The national carriers are working with Discover Financial Services and Barclays PLC on a trial, the people said, which would involve allowing customers to pay for goods and services by holding their smartphones at cash registers or taxis. Bloomberg earlier reported on the proposed venture.
The unlikely alliance of rival wireless carriers underscores the difficulties of setting up a mobile payment system, which has been stalled by the need for broad cooperation from carriers, handset makers, banks and credit-card companies, each with competing agendas.
The carriers, in particular, have pushed to maintain a larger role to avoid being relegated to a simple pipe connecting the consumer's cellphone.
A partnership with Discover, a second-tier player, suggests that the carriers are lining up against the more widely accepted companies, including Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc., which have their own plans for mobile payments.
Discover shares rose 2.5% to $15.65, while Visa fell 2.4% to $71.56 and MasterCard fell 3% to $203.70. AT&T shares rose 2.4% to $26.55. Verizon Communications Inc., which jointly owns Verizon Wireless with Vodafone Group PLC, rose 1.5% to $29.48.
"Discover is always evaluating technology solutions that make things faster, safer, and more convenient for cardmembers, merchants, acquirers and issuers," according to a company spokeswoman.
The venture would focus on using a technology called Near-Field Communication, also known as contactless payment. NFC chips are already found in credit cards, which are activated when a customer waves them in front of a sensor found near certain point-of-sale terminals, such as drugstore cash registers. The technology isn't new, but handset makers are reluctant to install it into phones because there has been little progress in the area. Consulting firm Philliou Selwanes Partners LLC said there are 500,000 contactless readers in more than 140,000 locations in the U.S.
One telecom executive, however, warned the venture was still early in the process, and UBS analyst Jason Kupferberg said he would surprised if the it gained any popularity in the near term.
Still, some believe the venture represents a significant step in the right direction for mobile payments.
"We have seen numerous disparate efforts in contactless payments," said Philip J. Philliou, a partner at Philliou Selwanes. "This is most the meaningful initiative in the contactless payments space."
Verizon Wireless already has dabbled in mobile payments. In March, it signed a deal with South Korean mobile-payment provider Danal Co. to allow its customers to make online purchases on their handsets, which would be paid through their cellphone bills.
Visa is already working with NFC technology, including partnering with privately held DeviceFidelity Inc. to integrate NFC chips into memory cards, which would be distributed to Visa customers. MasterCard has partnered with a number of mobile carriers and handset makers to test out NFC.
American Express Co. recently hired Sprint Nextel Corp.'s prepaid chief, Dan Schulman, to expand its mobile payment options.