A survey of 15 top U.S. banks and credit unions found when it comes to mobile payments -- using smartphones like the iPhone to pay for goods and services -- most are content to sit on the sidelines and see how this emerging technology platform plays out rather than take a leadership role that companies from other industries have quickly assumed.

The survey, conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf financial technology and services provider Fiserv, concludes that while most of the top U.S. financial institutions have clearly outline and articulated their mobile banking strategy and plan to support more mobile devices and platforms, they're not nearly as certain about their mobile payments plans.

"Mobile payments were a hot media topic in 2010, but not all mobile payments are created equal," Brad Strothkamp, a Forrester Research analysts, said in the report. "In 2011, bill payment and transfers via mobile devices will undoubtedly increase as availability and utilization of mobile services grow. Contactless payments will not have the same success…these types of mobile payments have major impediments to success, including technology, merchant, consumer and issuer issues.”

While Apple, Google and other smartphone and smartphone operating system and application vendors are ramping up their investments in near-field communications (NFC) to make it simple and secure for smartphone owners to tap or scan their mobile devices at participating companies, banks are largely consumed with increased security threats and indecision when it comes to selecting hardware and software partners.

"While financial institutions are reluctant to invest heavily in mobile payments today, this is the right time to be developing a strategy for the future," said Erich Litch, division president of Fiserv's digital channels group, said in the report. “Waiting for all the pieces to fall into place before starting to think about mobile payments will leave the door open for third parties to take business away from financial institutions."

Thirteen of the 15 institutions surveyed now offer a mobile banking platform to customers but only one today offers direct, person-to-person payment services. None of the banks and credit unions surveyed offered either remote deposit capture or remote payments, including those conducted on social media sites.

This comes at time when smartphone ownership and usage is exploding not only in the U.S. but around the world. According to data gathered by Mercatus LLC, more than 50% of Americans and almost 80% of those younger than 35 by 2015 will use financial services on their mobile devices. The number of people comfortable using mobile banking tools and services will more than triple over the next four years to a total of 38 million households.

"Developing a strategy now will position financial institutions to move quickly when the catalysts for greater mobile payments are in place," the report said. "Speed is essential in the rapidly evolving mobile space and even financial institutions that see themselves as 'fast followers' should be thinking about how to deliver mobile payment capabilities that are suited their institution and appropriate for their customers."

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