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Saturday, March 7, 1998 Published at 05:16 GMT


Get smart - you don't need cash or credit cards
image: [ Smartcards may be on the increase, but many shops are expected to stick with cash ]
Smartcards may be on the increase, but many shops are expected to stick with cash

Imagine a time when your wallet or purse does not bulge with numerous plastic cards, notes and small change.

Imagine one single card, small enough to fit into a fashionably svelte purse, which could be used for everything from teleshopping to withdrawing cash, paying for your bus ride and your dog licence.

Just such a "smartcard" is being piloted in the North East of England later this year and could signal the beginning of the end for cash.

Newcastle City Council is one of more than 60 European companies, local authorities and national governments taking part in 'Project Distinct'.

The plan is for the "combi card" to be used as a bank card, storecard, loyalty card and bus pass rolled into one.

It contains a tiny silicon chip known as an "electronic purse" which can be customised to include details of bank accounts, social security numbers, membership of various organisations and discount schemes and even medical records.

The card would be swiped by special machines which automatically distill information from the chip, and then can add loyalty points, award discounts or debit and credit the owner's account.

Among the participants in Project Distinct are the Finnish government, the cities of Turin in Italy and Salonica in Greece and the Dutch province of Zeeland.

[ image: Smartcard technology is improving all the time]
Smartcard technology is improving all the time
Millions of smartcard users

Mick Riley, Head of Special Projects at Newcastle City Council, says: "In Holland there are two million smartcard or 'chipcard' users and within a few years it is predicted there will be 25m. In Britain they are not well developed."

Newcastle is hosting a smartcard seminar on March 19 and there will be representatives from IBM, BT, Telewest, ABN/Amro Bank and the French company Gemplus -- the world's largest manufacturer of smartcards.

Newcastle City Council will be seeking to recruit several British local authorities, government agencies and companies to the project.

One of them is Newcastle United Football Club, who are about to increase the capacity of their St James's Park ground from 35,000 to 50,000. There are fears about the increasing traffic coming into the city on match days, and Mr Riley says it may be possible to use the new smartcard to encourage football supporters to leave their cars at home and come in by bus or Metro by offering discounts on club merchandise.

Do drink - and drive for free

And there are numerous other applications: breweries, for example, would be able to pay the bus fares of pub regulars.

Newcastle is at the forefront of smartcard technology. In the spring government minister Dr David Clark will launch a new range of special information kiosks in the city centre.

The kiosks, accessible by wheelchair users, will include video conferencing facilities and users will be able to find out about bus timetables, social security office opening times and leisure information at the press of a button.

There are also plans to enable housebound people to pay for their shopping electronically.

[ image: The smartcard will operate in a similar way to ordinary credit cards]
The smartcard will operate in a similar way to ordinary credit cards
Mr Riley says the plan was for the card to be used in telephones and cash dispensers and as a credit card to pay car tax, council tax and other bills and licences.

"It has the potential to be your phonecard, credit card, storecard, National Insurance card and bus pass all rolled into one.

Biometric identification

The cards have room for photographs and space for "biometric identification" -- fingerprints, retina scans or voice imprints -- which would provide 100% security.

Mr Riley says he hopes other cities in Britain will take up the idea. The project is funded by a European Union grant, and the Government has been kept fully informed on its progress.

"It's not in Newcastle's interest to come up with a card which is unique to Newcastle. We want it to be as widely applicable as possible," he says.

Gemplus spokesman Andre Calder says Britain is lagging behind the rest of Europe when it comes to smartcard technology with America even further behind.

Most British banks and building societies use cards with magnetic strips in them but, he says, Midland Bank is conducting trials with smartcards in Swindon and the credit card company Visa is conducting a similar experiment in Leeds.

But the cash-less and card-poor future is not close yet. Mr Calder says that "the infrastructure for smartcards does not exist. Many cash dispensers accept them, but most electronic tills don't and it will cost millions to replace them."

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