Text to Haiti - Precursor to Mobile Banking?

In Americans' outpouring of support for the people of Haiti after the earthquake earlier this week, the Big Four mobile operators-- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile-- all made commendable efforts to maximize support for the Red Cross and other organizations. They waived fees on text messaged donations, they matched donations made by their employees, and they did something else that was, I think, even more significant: they advanced the transfer of of verified donations to the beneficiary organizations.

In the past, if you made a donation via text, your cell phone provider would add the charge to your bill at the end of the month, and then pass along the funds once you paid up.  This time, they transferred a good chunk of the total before getting paid themselves.

mPESAThis shift is a huge step toward mobile banking in the United States.  In Kenya, about 20% of the population subscribes to mPESA, a mobile payments service operated by mobile provider Safaricom.  mPESA allows mobile-to-mobile payments without any bank or credit card intermediary; it grew out of the practice-- common in the developing world-- of transferring pre-paid airtime among phones. This type of business has yet to take off in the United States, not for lack of demand, but more because of regulations that prevent telecom companies from acting like banks.

But by forwarding the donations to the Red Cross before recieving payment, the mobile operators took a subtle but very big step toward allowing payments via mobile. Now that we can all send money almost instantly to the Red Cross with a quick SMS, how long can it be before we'll be able to text $1.59 to CVS for a pack of gum, or wave our cell phones by a parking meter instead of pumping in quarters?

Before, the argument was that the telecom companies wouldn't want to be in the business of lending money, and didn't want complicated tie-ups with credit card companies or banks. Now, they've taken a step in that direction, and I expect they'll come out of it just fine-- and perhaps with an idea of the great business opportunity here.