STAR  NEWS FEATURE:  CELL  PHONES  DOUBLE  AS  E-WALLETS  FOR  OFWs

SAN MIGUEL, BULACAN, OCTOBER 1, 2007
(STAR) (AP) - It’s Thursday, so 18-year-old Dennis Tiangco is off to a bank to collect his weekly allowance, zapped by his mother – who’s working in Hong Kong – to his electronic wallet: his cell phone.

Sauntering into a branch of GM Bank in this town, Dennis fills out a form, sends a text message via his phone to a bank line dedicated to the service.

In a matter of seconds, the transaction is approved and the teller gives him P2,500 ($54), minus a one-percent fee. He doesn’t need a bank account to retrieve the money.

More than 5.5 million Filipinos now use their cell phones as virtual wallets, making the Philippines a leader among developing nations in providing financial transactions over mobile networks.

Mobile banking services, which are also catching on in Kenya and South Africa, enable people who don’t have bank accounts to transfer money easily, quickly and safely. It’s spreading in the developing world because mobile phones are much more common than bank accounts.

The system is particularly useful for the eight million Filipinos - 10 percent of the country’s citizens - who work overseas and send money home, like Dennis’ mother, Anna Tiangco. Previously, she sent money via a bank wire transfer, which costs HK$20 (US$2.50) and takes two days to clear. The cell phone method costs only HK$1 (13 US cents) and is nearly instantaneous.

“The good thing here is, wherever my children are, they can text me and I can send money immediately,” she said by telephone from Hong Kong.

Consumers also can store limited amounts of money on their cell phones to buy things at stores that participate in the network -although this practice isn’t yet widespread in the country.

Many more Filipinos use their phones to send airtime values called “loads” to prepaid subscribers. A parent, for example, can send a P60 load to replenish a child’s cell phone, charged to the parent’s account.

While Japanese and South Korean consumers have been using cell phones as virtual wallets for several years, those systems use a computer chip implanted in handset that allows people to buy things by waving the phone in front of a sensor. The Philippine system relies on simple text messages, which cost just P1 (2 US cents) to send.

The 41 million cell phone users in the Philippines are avid texters. The electronic connections have fostered a culture of quick greetings and forwarded jokes. Text messages also played a key role in mobilizing crowds that fueled the 2001 people power revolt that ousted President Joseph Estrada.

The Philippines’ two biggest mobile service providers, Globe Telecom and Smart Communications, have harnessed this penchant for text messaging to enable consumers to enter the world of e-commerce.

Tapping into the cash flow from overseas Filipinos - who sent home $12.7 billion last year - Globe and Smart forged partnerships with foreign mobile providers and banks, as well as with local banks and merchants, to create a network that allows users to send and receive cash internationally.

When Anna Tiangco wants to send cash home, for example, she goes to a branch of her local provider, Hong Kong CSL Ltd., where a clerk credits her cell phone with the amount she has brought with her. She then transfers the money to family members via text messages - in essence instructing her providers to deduct money from her balance to the recipients she indicates.

If a cell phone loaded with cash values is lost or stolen, the money can’t be tapped as long as the personal identification number isn’t revealed. Control over the funds can be restored with a replacement SIM card from either mobile provider.

The system was “built for remote payments and for the unbanked markets,” said Rizza Maniego Eala, president of G-Xchange, Globe’s subsidiary in charge of its G-Cash money transfer service.

Eala said her company’s 500,000 G-Cash users transfer about $100 million monthly, but she declined to say how many transactions involve remittances from overseas.

Smart offers a slightly different money transfer system, used by about five million Filipinos, that links Users load up their phones with money via text messages. The card - which costs P200 but does not require a bank account - can then be used to purchase goods in establishments that accept MasterCard, or to withdraw cash from an ATM machine.

Smart Communications spokesman Ramon Isberto said each time the recipient spends the money, the sender receives a transaction message. That allows the sender to see how the funds are used.

“The added value there now is that Filipinos overseas have greater control over their funds. Believe me, that is important to them,” he said.

Smart and UAE’s leading telecommunications operator, Etisalat, have agreed to provide money transfer service to hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the Middle East. Smart also will soon launch a remittance system in Bahrain in partnership with MTC-Vodafone and Ahli United Bank there, and Banco de Oro in the Philippines, Isberto said.

“The bank products remain clearly bank products. We positioned ourselves as an enabler for banks and other financial institutions to provide products and services to their customers in ways they would otherwise not have been able to,” he said.

Aside from transferring cash and making purchases, both Globe and Smart also allow their users to pay bills with their phones. Anna Tiangco said she pays her family’s electric bills in San Miguel from Hong Kong via text messages, just like she sends money.

“Even if we are far apart, it’s like we are still together,” she said. “This is like my wallet now.” - AP


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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