India’s Airtel introduces cash payment by mobile phone

The company is tying up with merchants who will accept payments from its subscribers

India's largest mobile operator, Bharti Airtel, is offering its customers the facility to make payments through mobile phones, reflecting a growing interest by Indian mobile operators in addressing the large number of mobile users in the country that do not have access to banking and online facilities.

Currently a large number of people in India pay in cash for goods and services, sometimes standing in long queues to pay for utilities like electricity and water supply.

Bharti Airtel said on Monday that its customers could deposit cash in their "airtel money" accounts through authorized retail locations. Using an application provided by Bharti Airtel on their mobiles, users can make payments at shops, and book movies tickets and pay utilities remotely through their mobile phones. The merchants and utilities have to be on the Bharti Airtel network, and be part of the money transfer program.

Indian mobile operators are looking for ways to get customer loyalty and stickiness, said Kamlesh Bhatia , a principal research analyst at Gartner. If the money transfer program takes off, Bharti Airtel will ensure that a number of customers and merchants will get on to its network, and stay with it.

Getting customer loyalty through value added services has become critical after India introduced this month mobile number portability, which allows customers to switch operators while retaining their mobile numbers.

The service works on all mobile phones on the Bharti Airtel network, even those that do not have GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) connections, the company said on its website. Using the money transfer application on the SIM card, users can select the merchant to make the payment, and authorize transactions using a 4-digit password. They will receive a SMS (short message service) confirmation after the transaction is completed.

The service offered in Gurgaon, a city close to Delhi, will be extended to other key cities as well, Bharti Airtel said. The company hopes to attract customers to the service through discounts and offers at merchant outlets.

Bharti Airtel said earlier this month that it was setting up a joint venture with State Bank of India (SBI), India's largest commercial bank "to make available banking services to India's unbanked millions". Offering mobile money transfer and mobile banking services to people in India who do not have access to bank services is an important opportunity for mobile operators, Bhatia said.

Bharti Airtel's competitors are also putting together their mobile banking strategies. Vodafone Essar, the Indian joint venture of Vodafone Group, has for example tied with ICICI Bank, India's largest private sector bank, to offer financial products such as savings accounts, pre-paid instruments and credit products through a mobile phone platform.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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