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NatWest calls the future on a mobile

THE PROSPECT of being able to run a bank account using a mobile phone moved a step nearer yesterday when NatWest joined forces with a telecoms company.

NatWest and European Telecom have set up a new company, a 50/50 joint venture called Lifestyle Communications, to develop and market mobile phone banking services in the UK.

Lifestyle's first product, a pre-paid mobile telephony service which allows NatWest customers to check balance details, is due out later this summer.

The company intends to research and develop integrated mobile phone and banking services. It predicts customers will eventually be able to use their mobile phone to pay directly for goods and services.

Customers should also be able to settle bills, move money between accounts and could even be able to download electronic cash.

Warren Hardy, chairman and chief executive of European Telecom, said: "The technology NatWest has been working will enable people to buy and pay for services via their Sim card [the card that slots into mobile phones and allows access to mobile phone networks]".

Steve Adams, head of IT at NatWest Card Services and chairman of Lifestyle, said: "I firmly believe that the technology required for telephony, card payment and card-based services is a key area for future development".

Lifestyle's customers will initially be able to use their pre-paid mobile phone only to check their NatWest balances and details of their last transaction. However, Mr Hardy claims the company already has the technology to allow customers to "top-up" their pre-paid air time using a traditional credit or debit card. Rather than buying pre-paid "vouchers" for airtime, customers will be able to top up credit by punching card details into the mobile phone.

The concept of mobile phone banking is not new. Barclaycard has an alliance with Cellnet and last year launched a mobile phone which allows Barclaycard customers to check their account details. Barclays has also signalled its intention to continue developing so-called "value-added" mobile phone services.

Lifestyle says its new product, unlike that of Barclaycard, does not tie customers to one particular handset or one particular network. Mr Hardy also said Lifestyle was set on taking the mobile phone banking concept "several stages further". He claimed the company was as little as 12 months away from developing a combined credit and Sim card - a card that slots into the mobile phone, allows access to the network and also serves as a debit or a credit card. Once this happens, the possibilities are endless, says Lifestyle.

Customers will be able to pay for their mobile phone airtime "as they go". The cost of the airtime will, via the technology contained in the Sim card, be automatically deducted from the customer's account.

But, according to Lifestyle, the possibilities do not end there. Once the combined Sim/credit or debit card is in place, customers will be able to pay for goods and services directly without the need for reading out card details over the telephone.