Banking on the internet can be very convenient. Not only can you pay your bills any time of day and night but you don't have to get rained on or stand in a queue to find out your bank balance. But what about the millions of people who don't have a personal computer?
As long as you subscribe to satellite or cable television, you can now get a similar level banking service through your own television set. A handful of banks in the UK including Abbey National, HSBC and Woolwich are now launching digital banking services through cable and satellite TV companies.
This is only the start. HSBC predicts that 71 per cent of retail banks will either offer interactive TV banking within the next six months or are negotiating with digital providers to develop such products.
The market now opening up to banks is far wider than PC banking. Abbey National is predicting that 26 million adults in the UK will be able to carry out financial transactions via TV by 2003. Just six million adults now have access to the internet through their PCs.
Within ten years, says HSBC, almost every home in the country will be able to use TV banking, because nearly all sets will be digital by then.
Abbey National said it has signed partnership deals with cable companies Telewest Communications and NTL to offer its "sofa banking" service. Telewest says it will have 500,000 customers by the end of the year. These services are likely to start in late summer, the bank says.
As well as this, Abbey's service on Open, the home shopping information service available on Sky Digital TV, will be fully transactional at the end of May. On Open, Abbey says that its customers will be able to order cheque books, pay bills, set up direct debits and check old balances.
Abbey National customer Polly Walker, who lives in London, is currently looking to buy a house. She used the bank's digital service to browse through the mortgage deals it offered. The TV service was easy to use, she says, and in order to talk further, she booked an appointment for a representative from the bank to call her. "As plain English as it is, there are always questions you want to ask."
Although digital banking is already available through satellite digital TV, the technology which will be offered by cable companies Telewest, owned by Cable & Wireless, and NTL hasthe advantage.
While services can be viewed through the satellite system, instructions have to go through a phone line, leaving the line engaged and incurring phone charges. But with cable digital services instructions will be sent via the TV cable.
While Abbey National's digital service will soon be available to everyone who gets cable or satellite digital TV, HSBC's banking service is limited to the Open platform. HSBC is one of four shareholders in British Interactive Broadcasting, the company behind Open.
HSBC's service was launched last September but has only just gone fully operational. Customers can now pay bills, pay off credit cards, move money between accounts, and view recent transactions.
The bank says 75,000 customers have become users of TV banking. "Most people say it's very quick and convenient ... and good for the things that people like to check quickly, like their bank balance," says HSBC's Nicolette Dawson. But, she says, if you want in-depth accounting, you are probably better off PC banking.
It is not just the big banks who are embracing the technology. The Newcastle Building Society offers a service through Telewest Interactive Digital. Customers can fill in a basic mortgage application and the lender will say on screen whether it will, in principle, give you a mortgage. Potential borrowers can then register on TV to get a phone call from a society representative.
Banks are well aware that branch closures, particularly in small towns and villages, has provoked an outcry. So the digital providers stress that the new medium will not substitute branches. "There are times when people want a face-to-face meeting, and people can book a call through the TV," Abbey spokesman Gug Kyriacou says. "It certainly doesn't spell the end for branches."
Do the banks hope the new digital TV service will draw in new customers? Ms Dawson of HSBC says the service was never intended to be primarily a recruitment channel. "But it's a very innovative service that may well have attracted people to give it a go," she adds. Woolwich, however, hopes to lift its customer base by nearly 25 per cent, or one million people, with its banking service, which allows for transactions via telephone, internet, digital TV and Wap mobile phones.
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