(STAR) By Antonio Paño - Soon, remitting money to their families in the Philippines will just be a text message away for millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

This, as Smart Communications, using a platform it has developed for mobile phone-based money transfers, pilot-tests in the Middle East and Europe what it calls the Smart Services Hub. The service involves telecommunications companies and banks on both ends of the remittance flow working together to serve the needs of OFWs.

Napoleon Nazareno, Smart president and chief executive officer, said the pilot will begin in Bahrain in April — and eventually in six other Gulf states — and in Italy where there are 250,000 OFWs.

"Today we are again attempting to use our mobile commerce technology to launch a service that addresses another strongly felt customer need. In this case, the customers are overseas Filipinos and the service they need is a reliable, convenient and affordable mobile phone-based remittance service," Nazareno told industry analysts and the international media at the GSM World Congress here Monday.

According to Nazareno, there are some 10 million Filipino contract workers or migrants in nearly 200 countries. In 2006 alone, they remitted about $14 billion through formal channels, accounting for 10 percent of the gross domestic product.

How does Smart Services Hub work? An OFW in Bahrain, for instance, who wants to send money for his son’s graduation, picks up his mobile phone and sends a text message to MTC Vodafone, Smart’s local telecom partner, to draw funds from his deposit account in a local bank.

The remitted money, in turn, goes to the bank account of the OFW’s family in the Philippines or in the recipient’s Smart Money electronic wallet and encashed in Smart centers. Both the sender and the recipient are notified through a text message that the remittance is completed.

Smart Money is the country’s first electronic cash card linked to a mobile phone for which Smart won an innovation award from the GSM Association in 2001. The leading telecom operator used Smart Money’s core feature for over-the-air loading of prepaid phone credits in small denominations.

Nazareno is confident that Smart Services Hub will be a "big boon" for overseas Filipinos as it offers them a low-cost remittance service as well as convenience since many of them are in remote work sites that are far from banks or remittance offices.

Besides, Nazareno said OFWs, through the pioneering service, will have "better control" of the money they send home, ensuring that it is actually spent for its intended purpose.

Smart is revolutionizing Smart Services Hub as part of the pilot program of the GSM Association (GSMA) to tap the ubiquitous mobile phone to allow the estimated 200 million foreign migrant workers around the world to "easily and securely" send remittances to their families, many of whom do not have bank accounts. Indian mobile phone operator Bharti will also introduce a similar service for millions of Indian migrant workers.

The GSMA’s effort is spearheaded by 19 mobile operators with networks in over 100 countries, with a total of over 600 million customers.

"The GSMA believes the program could double the number of recipients of international remittances to more than 1.5 billion, while helping to quadruple the size of the international remittance market to more than $1 trillion by 2012," it said in a statement.

As part of the GSMA program, Smart plans to pilot a project with MasterCard as an authorization, clearing and settlement partner as it sees the need for a global hub interoperable with Smart Services Hub, Nazareno said.

In fact GSMA and Mastercard, which boasts a 25,000 member-bank network, plan to pilot such a global hub linking together national markets and local payment systems run by mobile operators such as Smart in partnership with local banks. — With Mary Ann LL Reyes

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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