by Julian Goldsmith

Visa Europe CIO Steve Chambers delivers C21 payments platform

Feb 09, 2011
Financial Services IndustryIT LeadershipIT Strategy

VisaEurope’s new  pan-European payment authorisation platform went live at the start of 2007. The core of the platform is a BASE 24 framework, but CIO Steve Chambers maintains that what has since been built into it makes it unrecognisable as such.

He shares his company’s ambitions that the system becomes Europe’s de-facto card payments system, even though the European Commission is wary of handing so much financial power to one company.

“We are the only pan-European card payments system, owned and controlled by the European banks that is completely SEPA-compliant,” he says. “The European commission is still pushing for a third scheme [alongside Visa and Mastercard]. We would argue that we are the European payment scheme.

“This is a scale area. More smaller switches is less efficient than fewer huge switches.”

In June 2010, the last of the member banks who had agreed to adopt the system were switched over to the clearing and settlement systems.

There are still some member banks in mainland Europe that have not yet migra­ted to the new system, but Chambers bel­ieves they may do so as their existing technology reaches the end of its natural life.

In the meantime, he is concerned with making sure the platform he built will meet the demands of Visa’s customers.

“The performance of the system is an overwhelming priority for me,” he says. “We have to keep the volume of trans­actions competitive. Mastercard hands on a transaction at 140 milliseconds. We switch at 20. It’s getting to the stage where the retailer and the merchant bank is the impact point of the process.”

In an environment where consumers are increasingly impatient to complete their payment and go, transaction processing times have to be shaved to the bone. In the UK Chambers has managed to reduce time-out levels to five seconds, and 95 per cent of responses are quicker than two seconds. All of this means member banks’ systems linked to Visa’s new platform have to match that performance or they become a bottleneck.

“The issuer system can get loaded, so we are looking at their volumes and making sure that they’ve got the system capacity so nothing goes wrong in the chain,” Chambers explains.

Alongside increasing demands on performance, the platform was also built to set Visa up to offer new services over mobile and contactless systems.

Contactless Visa debit and credit cards, for instance, allow people to make quick low-value payments for articles such as newspapers and snacks. It allows Visa to move into the low-value but high-volume convenience payments space that is the last refuge of cash. It’s a big part of the firm’s intent to replace cash altogether.

High volumes at high speed mean high-transaction performance – something that would possibly have stretched Visa’s old payments platform.

Similarly, the move to mobile payments reflects consumers’ desire to have greater control over their lives through a single device. Increasingly people communicate through their mobile phones and Chambers thinks they will want to exchange money in the same way.

“The next generation is comfortable with these technologies before they start spending money with plastic cards, so we are going to see a surge in the change to electronic payments,” says Chambers.