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Friday, 27 October, 2000, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
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mobile and chocolate BBC
Mobiles could take the place of small change
Soon you could be paying for chocolate from vending machines with your mobile phone, writes BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward.

You're on your way home. The train is delayed. You've read the paper. You've told your nearest and dearest that you are going to be late. You're peckish, but you have no change for the chocolate vending machine.

You may go hungry this time, but soon you'll be able to use your mobile to pay for a snack on the way home.

Handset makers, phone companies, vending machine operators, food firms and others are all working on ways to let people pay for chocolate, drinks and parking meters with their phones.

Changes in the law and some smart technologies mean that soon you may never need to carry small change again. Your phone will be your purse.

Pioneering payments

Britons won't be the first using their mobile in place of pennies - Scandinavians have been doing just that for over a year.

In Helsinki, where more than 70% of Finns have a handset, mobile phone firm Sonera has developed a system that lets anybody use a handset to pay for chocolate or pop from vending machines or to get their car washed.

The Finnish highway patrol is testing a similar system that lets them tune speeding fines to the income of an offender. The cops send the social security number of a speeding motorist to an online database by text message to find out how much the offender can afford to pay.

In Stockholm, Sweden, some motorists are using their handsets to pay for the time they spend parked in city centre car parks.

The actual bill for the chocolate, drink or parking space turns up on a customer's next phone bill.

Vending vision

Now the same kind of services are close to becoming a reality in Britain thanks to technology developments and legal changes.

Jan Podsiadly, spokesman for the Automatic Vending Association, said a change in the law had opened the way for "single drop charges" which let telecommunications companies charge customers for something other than a phone call when they ring up.

"We have not had single drop charges for long," he said. "Before, if you were paying for a chocolate bar, you would have to pay the whole price of the call."

parking meter BBC
Pay for parking with a phone
Telecoms watchdog Oftel has set aside a block of numbers, beginning 089, for single drop charges. This will allow phone users ring to a number and get charged for chocolate or a car wash.

Lots of companies are working on ways to add mobile phone interfaces to the humble vending machine.

Drink and debit

Hammersmith-based Earthport is currently working on ways of extending its wireless payment system to cover vending machines. Its system works by cordoning off a portion of a subscribers' money into an online account that is debited when that person wants to buy something with their phone. The account can be debited using phone text messages, by Wap or over the net.

Earthport is working with hardware firm Ztango on easy ways to connect up vending machines to mobile phone networks. Henry O'Sullivan, chief technology officer at Earthport, said trials of the system were being carried out in Finland, but it is hoping to extend the system across Europe once the trials are complete.

Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and Mastercard are now drawing up standards that will turn a mobile phone into a "trusted personal device" that will act as wallet, car and house keys as well as an electronic ID card, said Mr O' Sullivan. Future generations of smart phones are likely to be built around the specifications developed by the group.

Money machine

Smart Trust, an offshoot of Sonera, is working on a way to use a short-range radio system known as Bluetooth that lets phones talk to vending machines and swap money for chocolate or drinks.

Simon Brenchley, a spokesman for Smart Trust, said it was using Bluetooth because the communication between handset and vending machine are local. No call has to be made across the mobile network where details might get lost.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle has yet to be overcome. "The difficulty is roaming," said Mr Brenchley. "In the UK you have four or five operators and you have to make sure you have only one number to dial for a can of Coke."

The UK's five mobile phone operators have yet to sign agreements which would put one number on the side of a vending machine that anyone could use.

Currently there is only one vending machine in Britain that will accept payment by mobile that the public can use.

It is at Virgin's flagship store in London's West End. Only people with a Virgin mobile can use the machine which takes a 50p bite out of the credit they have left on the phone.

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See also:

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