Absa launches microSD mobile-payment trial

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South Africa’s Absa bank is launching what it calls the country’s first NFC trial, but is using contactless microSD cards, not full NFC phones for the pilot.

An Absa Group spokesperson says the trial will use microSDs from US-based DeviceFidelity in three BlackBerry models, but not NFC-enabled models, such as the BlackBerry 9900, as was reported elsewhere.

About 500 microSDs distributed to employees for the trial will store a MasterCard PayPass ‘prepaid debit’ application that can be tapped at a limited number of acceptance points at corporate canteens at the offices of the bank and mobile operator partner Vodacom and in some coffee shops. There will also be a regional transport application in Cape Town – reports Dan Balaban.

Christo Vrey, managing executive of Absa Digital Banking, told MPW that the bank chose contactless microSD technology and not full NFC phones ‘due to its early availability, hygienic traits for our chosen customer devices and the fact that it has been successfully used in other similar projects.’

The devices to be used in the trial are the BlackBerry Curve 9300 and BlackBerry Bold 9700 and 9780. The microSDs come with their own small embedded antennas, and the cards will be inserted into microSD card slots on the phones. The handsets would require a range extender attached to the inside back covers to ensure reliable communication between the phones and readers. The cards don’t carry actual NFC chips, so could only do payments in card-emulation mode.

Contactless payment terminals also are sparse in South Africa and are likely being specially installed for the trial. Absa, one of South Africa’s largest banks, which is owned by UK-based Barclays bank, said it would roll out 4,000 contactless readers next year. The bank plans to offer merchants deals to entice them to install contactless terminals.

The bank earlier this year announced a deal with Vodacom, the No. 1 telco in South Africa and majority-owned by UK-based Vodafone Group, to develop mobile payment and other mobile financial services. Vodacom provided help in the latest trial from a ‘retail, technology and an ecosystem relationship point of view,’ said Absa’s Vrey.

He said the trial also would test a regional transport service in Cape Town, involving bus and metro transit. Transit fees will be deducted from a use’s account based on a fare schedule that requires the users to tap in on entering the system and tap out on exiting it.