Just in time for this years TM Forum Management World in Nice is the news that travelers will be able to pay for low-value tickets on the city’s bus and tram network directly via their mobile phone bills. However, mobile operators say they are offering the payment service for consumer convenience, not to compete with banks. Really?

Each of the country’s three operators plan to put at least 1,000 NFC phones on sale initially, but they expect to sell more. SIM cards the telcos issue will store bank payment and transit-ticketing applications. At least four French banks are expected to participate in the launch.

Bruno Prexl, spokesman for French mobile operator group Association Française du Sans Contact Mobile and m-payment marketing manager at Bouygues Telecom compared the NFC trial to the downloading of content, “In the past, it was ringtones and Java games. Now we are downloading low-value tickets. It makes sense to have one- (or two-) click payment through the phone. And today, the only one-click solution is the mobile operators’ bill.”

Consumers in the project will also be able to tap their phones to make retail purchases, using bank-debit applications stored on the SIMs. The Nice launch, expected to begin around April 2010, will involve a number of other applications. French operators and other organizers hope the project will serve as a prelude to a national rollout of NFC services in 2011.

Under a European Union mandate, the Payment Services Directive, which took effect in late 2009, mobile operators and other non-financial institutions can offer payment without a banking partner or banking license. However, this low value transactions also have low margins, a situation operators are not necessarily accustomed to.

For Veolia Transport, the transit operator participating in the Nice project, enabling customers pay for single tickets or other low-value transactions on their phone bills will save time but for higher-value transactions, such as passes, it would require them to go through their banks. That might require them to enter account numbers for the first purchase then short codes to renew the pass.

For visitors to Management World in May, unless they have accounts with one of the French service providers involved with the trial they may have to resort to that tried and tested method of payment on the trams & buses – cash!

For the cynics amongst us it sounds like the French mobile operators are trying to provide NFC micro-paymnets WITHOUT the banks even being involved. The biggest problem with NFC has always been the revenue share between interested parties. The banks and credit card companies have their own jolly ecosystem that they’ve kept to themselves for years. The telcos want to either share some of this revenue or charge rental on their SIMs for the third party applications and card information. The most likely adopters for NFC are transport companies that have proximity cards already in use, but these transactions are small and of very high volumes. Not much revenue share there. This should be an interesting scenario as it pans out.