Consultant, IBM Center for Applied Insights
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In this post, I shall try to have a closer look at some of the important questions pertaining to interoperability: what do we mean by mobile money interoperability, what are the arguments for and against interoperability, and what practical steps can be taken to achieve it?
The mobile money industry has witnessed a remarkable activity in the recent years. There are more than 165 pilots in the mobile money segment in emerging economies, mostly being run by MNOs, banks and other financial institutions. It is now possible to find two or more deployments in many Sub-Saharan African and South Asian countries. Yet, only a very few of these deployments have been able to achieve significant scale. In a recent survey of 52 mobile money service providers, the GSM (Groupe Spéciale Mobile) Association identified 11 service providers that have more than 1 million registered customers. This has led many to make a case for implementation of interoperability in mobile money ecosystems so that customers are more inclined to use mobile money and the deployments can achieve scale by increased customer adoption. Let’s try to explore this important concept further.
Defining mobile money interoperability: Interoperability occurs if different systems are technically able to work together. For mobile money, interoperability can happen between handsets, networks, financial processes and retail processes etc. The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. (CGAP) has proposed a framework that categorizes interoperability in three levels: platform, customer, and agent levels.
- Platform level interoperability – It permits customers of provider A to make payments to customers of provider B. They may also transact via any mobile network operator channel and switch operators without having to switch banks. For example, M-PESA allows consumers to send money to any phone. In South Africa, MTN offers subscribers not only MTN Banking’s application but also access to their First National Bank, ABSA, Standard Bank and NedBank accounts. WIZZIT works across all mobile networks in South Africa.
- Agent level interoperability - It permits agents of one mobile money service to also serve customers of another service, in other words, agents having non-exclusive partnership with operators.
- Customer level interoperability - It permits the customers to access different mobile money operators from one SIM. Also, it permits the customers to access mobile money account from same handset, regardless of SIM
The debate around interoperability: Market participants and regulators have not reached a consensus about the need and benefits of interoperability. Some regulators believe that interoperability is the way to go as the market matures and operators try to scale up. For example, governments of Ghana and India have mandated interoperability in their countries. Some regulators have taken a neutral position and have allowed market forces to decide the course. The Bank of Zambia prefers, but has not mandated, that mobile money solutions be interoperable. It is encouraging interoperability through the development of a national switch. Others feel that interoperability will erode the competitive advantage of market leaders and its implementation may not result in sufficient addition in subscribers to justify the investment required. For example, a report by GSM (Groupe Spéciale Mobile) Association suggests that the business case for implementing interoperability is unlikely to justify the initial investments of implementing it.
How to achieve interoperability: Though industry leaders seem to agree that interoperability is a key issue, they have different views on how it can be achieved. There are two broad approaches to achieving interoperability:
- Standards – In global mobile telecommunications industry, Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) has played a key role in setting up the standards and allowing the users to roam freely across various markets. Another example of common standards aiding the development of industry relates to SMS, where standard development in Europe led to a huge growth in SMS usage. Mobile money industry is still in its early stages and has not agreed to a set of common standards across all the elements described above. I believe it is unrealistic to take an entirely standards-based approach to interoperability. Standards are consensus based and take a long time to develop. Since a number of standards exist, it is unclear whether common standards can also impede the fast growth of mobile money industry; some of the players would have to wait before launching their services and many might have to migrate to common standards with significant costs and time. As the industry develops, a flexible approach based on experimentation would be needed. It will take time but governments & industry players should do what they can to monitor & promote standards,without holding back growth.
- Bilateral Agreements – Bilateral agreements, both commercial and technical, have become quite common. To develop compelling product offerings and to scale up, the market participants are experimenting with various business models and forging partnerships with other MNOs and financial institutions. For example, MasterCard and Telefonica announced a joint venture using the MasterCard Mobile Payments Gateway to lead the development of mobile financial solutions in 12 countries within Latin America where Telefonica’s Movistar® brand is present.
With respect to the timing and extent of interoperability, maybe the real answer lies somewhere in between. The timing and extent of interoperability needs to be specific to the state of market and needs to be continuously assessed. A report by Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU), suggests some valuable recommendations:
- Regulators should carefully consider the costs and benefits of implementing interoperability at an early stage of market development.
- Even when the enabling regulatory framework is in place, market should be monitored on a continuous basis to assess the need of further intervention.
- In the absence of interoperability regulations, monopolies and competition should be assessed periodically.
- Regulations should focus on ensuring that interoperability remains feasible at low cost to provide appropriate incentive to service providers and benefit users.
Have you ever been blocked by interoperability issues? What steps are your companies taking? I look forward to your comments and observations. Please click “Add a Comment” below or “More Actions” to share this with others.