Wave off your cash with a sound

Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan | Updated on March 10, 2018

Your phone is your wallet: NFC and sound-based payments offer a fast and seamless transaction solution

No one wants to handle notes and coins anymore. Much better to pay with sound waves

The app age has thoroughly spoilt us. When we need to pay for something, our hands reach for the phone rather than the wallet. Booking movie tickets, flights, cabs, paying for food delivered to the doorstep now comes without the hassle of handling soiled currency notes and grimy coins. No wonder then that we grimace when we have to pay for our petty needs at the local kirana store with cash.

But we are still not cashless. While debit and credit cards have certainly made life easier, your local paanwala will still stare at you like he is looking at an extraterrestrial if you hand him your credit card. ATMs too are annoyingly arbitrary with their currency denominations; showering you generously with ₹100 notes one time, and spewing out only ₹1,000 or Rs ₹500 notes the next. Handling cash is clearly seen by many as a nuisance these days.

Swipe to pay

Enter Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, which is increasingly being used to make the payment process easier. Customers just have to flash their phones or other NFC-enabled devices across a payment device to complete a transaction. But, with very limited merchant devices capable of using this technology being available in India, NFC-enabled devices such as NFC rings, linked to a user’s smartphone to enable connections, might currently not find too much utility in making payments here. Also, not all smartphones are NFC capable, with the feature presently available in mainly high-end phones.

This is where Ultracash, a Bengaluru-based startup comes in. Ultracash employs high frequency sound waves to enable payment, eliminating the need for hardware such as an NFC tag, which is a small component used to transfer information. The merchant and the customer just need to have the Ultracash app on their phones to enable transactions.

“A user with any bank account and debit card can use Ultracash,” said the company’s co-founder Vishal Lal. The service is currently available in Bengaluru, and Lal said that around 2,000 merchants are currently on board. Further, around 50 online merchants have also tied up with Ultracash, he added.

“It is simple, as all that it required is a microphone and speaker, which every phone has,” Lal said, claiming that the service is seeing more than 40,000 transactions a month, with most of their users actively transacting. Ultracash plans to take their service to multiple cities across India, including tier 2 and tier 3 cities. The app is available for download on the android and iOS platforms. Ultracash has also tied up with HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank, and Yes Bank to ease payment methods.

Another Indian startup Zeta also operates in the NFC payments space. Zeta currently focuses on corporate employee payments, with their products being used by employees to make NFC-enabled payments in their office cafeterias.

“In an office set-up, the most time-consuming aspect is making the payment,” said Zeta’s co-founder and CTO Ramki Gaddipati. “We experimented with various forms of payment and found that NFC-enabled payments were the easiest.” Zeta employs the conventional NFC technology, which requires hardware such as NFC tags. Zeta claimed two NFC payments on an average per day by those using their technology.

Gaddipati is quite optimistic about independently developed payments systems in India. “In India, we are building our own systems,” he said. “We have a better way of doing things when compared to the conventional Visa or Mastercard standard, but they are in their infant stages,” Gaddipati said, adding that there are only around 40,000 EMV standard NFC machines in the country currently, highlighting a drawback of the conventional systems. Gaddipati also said that Zeta is open to taking their payments system to retailers in the future.

This segment is buzzing with activity, with companies such as Tech Mahindra also entering the sound-based payments space, by launching MoboMoney, in partnership with sound-based communications provider ToneTag, earlier this year in February.

Major banks also seem to have to acknowledged the advantages of the NFC payment system, with ICICI bank having launched their Pockets app, which enables their users to pay by flashing their phones at an NFC-enabled terminal at merchants. The bank claims to have 60,000 merchants onboard across the country with this payment system, including major retailers such as Big Bazaar and Reliance Fresh.

With multiple players entering this previously untapped payment system segment, cashless payments look set to be revolutionalised in the country, with many NFC payment companies claiming a growing user base. Who knows, there may soon come a day when wallets might exist only in our phones and not in our pockets.

Published on September 28, 2016

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