In an unprecedented show of collaboration, Canada's three main wireless companies will unveil a service Monday that will let people exchange money through their cellphones.
The move is the first step in creating electronic wallets that contain not only cash but also other essentials such as credit cards and personal identification. Although mobile payment services exist in other countries, the Canadian phone companies say their offering is the first built through full industry collaboration.
Rogers Communications Inc ., Bell Canada and Telus Corp. quietly came together four years ago - even as they continued to wage fierce battles against each other for customers - to form a jointly owned company called EnStream LP.
The Toronto-based firm's mission has been to build a mobile platform that will ultimately change the way people conduct commerce.
"The end vision is you can take your billfold or purse and stick it into your phone," said David Robinson, vice-president of new business planning at Rogers Wireless.
The first step involves software called Zoompass, which customers can download from EnStream to their phones beginning Monday. It will let them draw up to $1,000 a day from their bank accounts and credit cards and send it to other individuals using the same software. Recipients will have instant access to the money, which will be held in trust by HSBC Bank Canada. Recipients will access funds by moving them to their own bank accounts or using a special MasterCard that will be credited instantaneously.
Zoompass doesn't let customers use their phones to pay merchants, however.
That next step hinges on greater deployment of equipment for "contactless" payments being pushed by credit card companies.
MasterCard's PayPass and Visa's payWave use a technology that embeds financial information on a chip that can be accessed when swiped in front a reader.
Over the next year, the telecom industry expects handset makers to put similar kinds of chips in cellphones. As more merchants begin adopting contactless readers, banks will be able to issue credit cards directly to people's phones, Mr. Robinson said.
Almis Ledas, vice-president of corporate development at Bell Mobility, equates moving financial information off magnetic striped cards and putting it into wireless devices to buying a CD over the Web rather than at a physical store. It's a more efficient transaction, he said.
"I don't think this is going to happen overnight," Mr. Ledas said. "But eventually, people will realize that all they have to carry with them is a cell phone, not a wallet."
Mr. Ledas described the three carriers' investments to date as relatively small, but said bigger investments could lie ahead. "It's an embryonic new business that may or may not take off," he said. "We may have it right, but I think this is still a risky activity that hasn't been done anywhere else before."
Despite success collaborating among themselves, Rogers, Bell and Telus have yet to bring Canada's top banks on side, even after lengthy discussions.
The two industries have different ideas about the best way of doing mobile commerce, but the stakes are huge, with billions of dollars of transaction fees potentially on the table.
EnStream will charge everyone using Zoompass 50 cents to send money, regardless of the amount of the transaction. The maximum allowable size of each transaction is $250.
"We're not trying to replace the banks' payment systems," Mr. Robinson said. "I don't see a conflict."
Based in Toronto, EnStream employs about 30 staff. In addition, it outsources customer service and some developer work.
The company says its Zoompass has several features that separate it from other payment services, such as EBay Inc.'s PayPal and Obopay Inc., a California-based startup. Zoompass is built specifically for mobile devices, provides instant assurances that a transaction is completed and can synchronize with a phone's contact file, says president Robin Dua.