UK banks go wild for mobile services

UK banks are cashing in on the WAP (wireless application protocol) technology fever hitting Europe. Last week saw numerous announcements from major UK financial institutions about their future plans for banking services via WAP-enabled mobile phones.

Woolwich PLC was first out of the blocks, announcing its WAP banking service on February 2. The Woolwich's Open Plan is currently being testing with 100 users, the UK building society and banking services provider said in a statement. The integrated banking service, which will be available to customers in April, will allow users to access balances and transactions, pay bills and transfer money over WAP-enabled mobile telephones.

The financial institution is launching the service in partnership with Vodafone AirTouch and using mobile phones from Nokia, Woolwich said. The trial group has been given Nokia 7110 WAP phones and one year's line rental from Vodafone in return for using the mobile banking service.

Woolwich is seeking to become a full mobile Web portal, offering news, weather and sports information, as well as online banking, Woolwich said.

National Westminster Bank PLC, (NatWest, which is in the process of being taken over by the Royal Bank of Scotland PLC), Abbey National PLC and Halifax PLC all followed suit last week announcing their own plans for WAP banking services. All of the financial institutions declined to discuss pricing for the service.

Halifax, along with its WAP announcement, said it was going to be the first UK bank to offer GPRS (general packet radio service) banking services. The WAP service will be rolling out during the third quarter of this year, with the GPRS mobile banking service due to launch in September, Halifax spokeswoman Alison Roberts said in a phone interview on Friday.

Halifax has partnered with BT Cellnet, a subsidiary of British Telecommunications, to deliver the service and also plans to launch a new Internet bank called IF (standing for Intelligent Finance) in July, Roberts said. The banking services will include current accounts, savings, mortgages, credit cards, loans and insurance and will be accessible over digital TV as well as mobile and fixed line telephones, she added.

Roberts, like the other bank representatives, declined to comment on possible fees for wireless access. "Halifax hasn't said anything one way or another in terms of additional fees," she said.

NatWest announced its WAP banking plans and partnership with Orange (owned by Mannesmann AG) on Thursday. The WAP service will be ready for 200 of the bank's customers in April, NatWest said in a statement. NatWest has a target of serving 1 million online users by the end of 2000, the bank said.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, soon to be NatWest's new owner, announced its own mobile banking venture with BT on February 6.

Abbey National PLC announced its online banking plans late last week. Its separately branded interactive banking service, called Cahoot, will be launched in June with WAP services available sometime during the third quarter, Abbey National spokeswoman Kathryn Pugh said. Abbey National is also planning to offer banking services through digital TV.

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