American Telephone & Telegraph Co. said yesterday that it plans to introduce an electronic "smart card" early next year that will allow motorists to pay highway, bridge and tunnel tolls without stopping at toll booths.
Diane Wetherington, president of AT&T's smart card division, said the company is talking with a number of highway authorities across the United States about installing a toll system like ones already in use in Japan and Europe. The system is built around a card that looks like a plastic credit card but acts like a sophisticated computer.
AT&T's foray into the smart card business represents another step in the company's effort to establish itself as a major player in the financial services business. It follows a highly successful campaign by AT&T last year to introduce the Universal Card, AT&T's general-purpose credit card. There are now more than 11 million in circulation.
Mark Plakias, managing director of Strategic Telestrategies, a New York City-based consulting firm, predicted AT&T's latest toll product would be the first of many smart card offerings introduced by the nation's No. 1 long distance company.
"AT&T has clearly been focusing on financial services for over a year now," Mr. Plakias said.
At the heart of AT&T's new electronic toll system is a laminated card that contains an ultra-thin microprocessor. The credit card-sized computer can record and store the equivalent of four typed pages of information.
The toll system works like this: As a motorist approaches a toll area, the card is inserted into a small device mounted on the --board of the car. The device reads the card's account information and transmits the data via radio frequency to an electronic data controller in the toll booth.
At that point, there are a number of ways the customer can be billed -- by the toll authority, AT&T itself or a third-party collection agency. The system could also be set up as a debit-card arrangement, with tolls deducted from a prepaid account.
The transaction, which takes only milliseconds to complete, is re
corded by the smart card as the vehicle speeds through the toll booth. "The beauty of the system is that you don't have to stop," Ms. Wetherington said.
AT&T's plans for its smart card go far beyond the nation's congested highways, she said. Though the card will initially be used only to pay tolls, AT&T plans to introduce a raft of other general-use applications later next year. She said AT&T is looking at using its smart card as a general debit card for restaurants, gasoline stations and gift shops.
Because the card can record virtually any kind of information, she said the new smart card could be used as a personal data base to store personal information, such as medical and insurance information.
Depending how the state authority wanted to handle it, either the transportation authority or AT&T could sell the debit card and ---mounted device, Ms. Wetherington said. Other sale outlets might include department stores or AT&T phone stores.
Ms. Wetherington declined to say how much the --board-mounted units might cost. In other systems, those units are sometimes sold for less than $10.
Maryland won't be among the first users of AT&T's new toll system. According to state highway officials, Maryland has already looked at -- and rejected -- a number of electronic toll systems because of their high error rates.
However, a spokesman for the Transportation Authority said the state eventually plans to implement some sort of an electronic toll system to reduce backups at Maryland's four toll bridges and two tunnels and on its one turnpike.
AT&T's CREDIT CARDS
1 AT&T Calling Card, used to charge long-distance calls, 40 million in circulation.
2 Universal Card, a general purpose revolving credit card. 11 million in circulation.
NEW AT&T's Smart Card, for paying highway, bridge and tunnel tolls.