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AT&T, Verizon Square Off on Mobile Pay

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The quest to make your phone more like a wallet has long been the ambition of banks, credit card companies and Internet payment shops like eBay's (EBAY - Get Report) PayPal.

Starting this week, you can add phone giant AT&T (T - Get Report) to this list.

Telcos have always been eager to find additional revenue streams beyond the business of carrying calls and data. Getting phones involved in purchases targets a small but growing segment of the market where telcos can finally get their hands on fees for processing transactions.

The mobile billing approach in this case bypasses credit cards and other payment methods by letting users enter their cell phone numbers into the payment box, which is confirmed in a text message.

"We've connected into hundreds of carriers in 60-plus countries so big merchants like Electronic Arts (ERTS) and eBay Classifieds are able to have their customers pay by just entering their mobile number and having that charge show up on a mobile phone bill," said Ron Hirson, co-founder of mobile payment startup Boku. "It helps people that find it easier to pay [that way] especially for impulse purchases [and also] those in the developing world who just don't have another way to pay ... there's a whole group of people that you enable to be able to purchase online with this service."

>>Shopping Via Smartphone

AT&T is expected to announce partnerships with two mobile payment companies -- closely-held Boku and BilltoMobile.

Earlier this year, AT&T rival Verizon (VZ - Get Report) signed on with BilltoMobile in March. And T-Mobile is working with Google (GOOG - Get Report) to allow users making purchases in the Android Market to have items added to their phone bills.

Long-time observers aren't particularly jazzed by the latest promise of mobile billing. "Cutting out credit cards is a concept that has been around for 10 years," said one Wall Street analyst whose firm discourages analysts from being quoted by name.

These are not the least expensive buying techniques, but it appeals to young gamers -- a tantalizing segment of the market for phone companies who hope to bring the customers up the purchase ladder from ring tones to game credits to music and videos.

"It's an alternative payment option for what we call the under-banked, which is an age group between 13 to 18 years old," said BilltoMobile strategy chief Steve Klebe. BilltoMobile is a unit of Danal, a mobile billing shop based in South Korea, one of a few countries where phone payments have become a big market.

"Because of what's going on with smartphones, the carriers are anxious to be a bigger part of their customers' digital lives," Klebe said.
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