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AT&T, Qualcomm Hope to Cash in on Mobile Banking

Top U.S. wireless carrier AT&T seeks to tap into growing interest in banking wirelessly, this week unveiling a new, downloadable mobile banking service in connection with Wachovia and SunTrust Banks.

The technology behind AT&T's new offering, available today on many of its phones, may soon be coming from another major wireless player, Qualcomm. The mobile phone chipset-maker yesterday announced plans to purchase wireless banking vendor Firethorn, which provides the technology behind AT&T's service.

Qualcomm's $210 million all-cash purchase could help it expand the applications supported by its hardware. The company said the deal should conclude within 30 days, and would see Firethorn maintaining its existing partnerships with wireless providers and financial institutions.

AT&T and Qualcomm aren't alone in looking to move into mobile banking. Last month, Verizon Wireless announced its own mobile banking partnership with Firethorn, seeking to tap into the company's network of partnered banking institutions, which include SunTrust and Wachovia.

The wireless giants' moves come amid predictions that the mobile banking industry is poised for dramatic growth in the next few years. Market research firm Celent has released a study projecting the portion of U.S. households that use mobile banking services to increase from 3 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2010.

"That is the year that mobile banking is moving into the mainstream," Celent analyst Red Gillen said in a statement.

By then, Celent projects that 17 million households will conduct their banking wirelessly, a figure still dwarfed by the number banking over the Internet even today. At present, about 46 million households conduct their banking online, according to Celent's research.

Celent's estimate of the current number of people now using mobile banking is slightly lower than the 7 percent figure reported earlier this year by an industry association, the Forum to Advance the Mobile Experience (FAME). In its study, FAME found that U.S. consumers have been much slower to adopt wireless banking than in developing nations, where wireless devices quickly became a universal platform for Internet connectivity.

Yet with more U.S. banks and wireless stakeholders rolling out mobile platforms, that gap could be closing. AT&T, for instance, is seeking to accelerate the growth of mobile banking by pre-loading its banking service on handsets that will ship later this year, it said.

Firethorn also recently signed financial services player USAA to a deal providing a mobile banking service.

Additionally, Bank of America today began promoting mobile banking with the launch of a Web site in connection with its current TV ad campaign. Both highlight new banking services, like mobile, which lie outside traditional offline channels.

Those efforts echo a growing notion that banks must adapt to customers' changing habits to remain competitive.

"The first adopters of online banking were innovators, but now it is a part of standard operating procedures for many customers who depend on the flexibility to access banking capabilities after hours," said SunTrust Executive Vice President Gene Kirby in a statement. "Mobile baking will follow a similar path."

An additional part of the effort to woo mobile banking users may depend on addressing consumers' security concerns. AT&T, for instance, said that all data is encrypted and that users who lose their phones can deactivate the service immediately.

Firethorn, likewise, has a standard secure socket layer (SSL) connection requirement.