It’s not often I trek across town for the unveiling of a policy report. Last week, I did, heading over to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) for an event that was worth the walk. On Tuesday, the ITIF released a new report, “Explaining International Mobile Payments Leadership,” that examines why the U.S. lags behind other nations in establishing a mobile payments system and offers recommendations for how the federal government can speed the arrival and adoption of mobile commerce.

The report, authored by ITIF Senior Analyst Stephen Ezell, explores the global state of mobile payment systems and identifies Japan, South Korea, and Singapore as the world’s leaders.  In these countries, mobile phones are used in conjunction with near field communications (NFC) technology to pay for public transit, to check in at airline gates, to make purchases from retails, and, in some cases, to supplement banking and financial institutions.  As a result, the mobile phone has evolved into an “electronic wallet,” which the report defines as “a multi-functional device possessing cash, information storage and transaction, identification and authentication, and communication functions.”

After presenting the report, Ezell participated in a panel discussion alongside David Jeppsen, Vice President, NTT DOCOMO USA, and Mark MacCarthy, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University and Former Senior Vice President for Global Public Policy at Visa Inc. The discussion was moderated by ITIF President Robert Atkinson.

The panelists argued that using cell phones as an electronic wallets will result in increased economic productivity and personal convenience.  However, as the reports notes, “widespread deployment and adoption of mobile payments systems requires action from a complex ecosystem of organizations.” This ecosystem include mobile carriers, banks, credit card companies, and others.  Because of the complexities involved, only a few nations have succeeded in coordinating the ecosystem required to develop a widely used mobile payments system. For America to realize the convenience and cost savings opportunities provided my mobile payments, Ezell stated, it “needs to develop and adopt a national strategy with government participation.”

The report’s key recommendations suggest that government should:

  1. Create an inter-government mobile payments working group and private-sector advisory council that would collaborate to introduce, by min-2010, a strategy for spurring the deployment of an open, interoperable mobile wallet;
  2. Assume a leadership role in promoting and adopting mobile payments (i.e require that mass transit systems receiving federal funding deploy mobile payment systems, and provide funding for pilot programs); and
  3. Establish clear consumer protections and address consumer privacy concerns.

Though the report states that electronic wallets are “now ready for full-scale implementation and use,” Mark MacCarthy noted that first, “we need incentives for merchants to upgrade and for carriers to embrace their role as payment intermediaries.”

No clear timetable was offered on when Americans can expect a mobile payment system. Stephen Ezell predicted, “two or three years,” while David Jeppsen said, “this technology is being developed for my twelve-year-old…who will be using it when he gets to college.”