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A $70 million investment by Nokia in a mobile-phone-payment system called Obopay suggests that, even in a plunging global economy, mobile financial services are guaranteed to grow in many of the world’s poorest nations.

In these parts of the world, many people lack access to traditional bank accounts and other financial services, but own mobile phones. Leveraging those phones as a way for people to access bank accounts, pay bills, borrow money, and pay loans is “a market that is exploding,” says Carol Realini, Obopay’s CEO. Realini believes that mobile-phone technology will affect financial services in a number of ways. “It will allow transactions in checks and cash to be done electronically,” she says. “That is the source of the opportunity that is unfolding around the world.”

Neither Obopay nor Nokia–the world’s largest maker of cell phones–would comment on what sort of program would unfold from the investment, which was announced last week and represents roughly a doubling of Obopay’s funding to date.

But Realini hinted at a huge scale-up in the global availability of mobile-payment services, especially given that about 1.3 billion Nokia phones are in circulation. “It really is about serving the globe,” she says. “[Nokia] makes around 1.2 million phones every day–we can add our capabilities to their distribution.” A Nokia spokesperson says that the company could not comment on the investment because it is in a quiet period ahead of an earnings announcement.

Obopay, based in Redwood City, CA, operates in the United States and India and is one of a handful of services that lets people transfer money to one another between bank accounts using a cell-phone software application or a text message. (Users can also do so via the Web, mobile or otherwise.) In the United States, Obopay charges a fee to users sending money (25 cents to send any amount up to $1,000). In India, fees for banking services are paid by banks, which have willingly done so because the service allows them to cultivate new account holders without having to build new retail branches. Obopay does not disclose its total number of customers in either country.

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Credit: David Talbot

Tagged: Communications, mobile devices, cell phones, India, financial systems, e-banking, Obopay

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