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Monday, August 06, 2012

White label ATMs

by Harsh Vardhan.

On 20 June, RBI issued guidelines that permitted White Label ATMs (WLA) to be operated in India. These guidelines could make a very significant change in the banking business - one that would go a long way in improving penetration of banking. This was a move that was long overdue. We can now look forward to very rapid expansion of the ATM networks along with many new services being offered at them.

ATMs arrived in the US in the late 1970s and in India somewhere in the 1990s, when some foreign banks set up a few in Mumbai and other metros. It was not until the late 1990's and early 2000's that ATMs became an important channel and there was a rapid growth. This growth can be attributed to the new generation private banks who used ATM's cleverly to expand the reach of their (then) limited branch networks to attract customers. These banks realized that it will take them a long time to match the branch reach of public sector banks, and hence adopted a model where a branch surrounded by a slew of ATM's became the means of attracting customer. The proposition to the customer was - "Open an account in the branch which may be far away from your home or place of work but transact on an ATM which is very close to you". A new generation of customers, more amenable to the use of this channel also helped. Slowly, most of the new generation banks managed to transfer a sizeable part (in some cases over 80%) of basic transactions -- cash withdrawal, balance enquiry, etc. -- to ATMs. The cost advantage was compelling. Doing transactions on ATM's can be 50% to 80% cheaper than using branches. We also saw some small "value added services" emerge at the ATM, such as bill payments.

Despite the rapid growth of the ATM network, their density is still low compared to other countries. India has ~ 77 ATMs per million population which is much lower than even countries like Thailand and Malaysia which have ~200 ATMs per million and significantly lower than the US which has over 1200 ATMs per million people. Clearly, ATM density will have to grow which means a large number of ATM's will have to be rolled out. For this to happen, appropriate incentives have to come into play in this field.

How do ATMs work?

It is important to first understand the mechanics of ATMs, to fully appreciate the roles played by different entities and how the new regulations change these roles and thus the incentives.

ATMs are essentially electronic contact points between a bank and its customers. The jargon of the field involves three kinds of entities:

  • Issuing banks - those that issue ATM cards (or debit and credit cards) to their customers
  • Acquiring banks that operate ATMs and dispense cash (similar process also is followed in case of the so called Point of Sales (PoS) terminals that are used at merchant establishments for payments)
  • Payment associations (also called Network Providers) - the intermediaries that facilitate the flow of information (payment instructions) and funds between issuing and acquiring banks

The process flow of cash dispensation by ATMs (which is 95% of what they do) works like this:

  1. A customer approaches an ATM and inserts his card.
  2. The ATM "reads" his card and passes the information to the bank which has set up the ATM. This bank is conventionally called the "acquiring" bank.
  3. Computers of the acquiring bank read the information and determine if the customer is its own or of some other bank.
  4. In case of its own customers the bank invokes his account, checks if there is enough money, and if the password is correct, sends instruction to the ATM to dispense cash. Such transactions, where the acquiring bank and the card issuing bank is the same, are called "On Us" transactions.
  5. Sometimes the customer has a card issued by another bank ("the issuing bank"). The acquiring bank (i.e. the one which setup the ATM) sends a message to Visa, MasterCard or "NFS" the National Financial Switch (a system set up by National Payment Corporation of India) depending on the arrangements between the acquiring banks, the issuing bank and these entities. These entities are called "Payment Associations" and they perform the role of connecting card issuing banks with the acquiring banks
  6. Upon receiving the information from the payment association, the issuing bank checks up the availability of a balance in the bank account, and sends the payment instruction to the ATM which dispenses cash. In this situation the acquiring bank is making the cash payment to the customer on behalf of the issuing bank. Such transactions are usually referred to as "Off Us" transactions
  7. The payment associations keep records of all "Off Us" transactions. At the end of each day, they do clearing and settlement of funds whereby all banks pay or receive funds depending on the net Off Us transactions made through their customers and possibly their ATMs.
  8. The issuing bank pays some fees to the acquiring bank and to the network providers for every transaction that their customers carry out on ATMs (i.e. for all "off us" transactions). These fees are a revenue for the acquiring banks which spends money in building and running the ATM network.

It is useful to think that there are 2 distinct flows in this process: a flow of information (or instructions), and a flow of money. Information flow takes place on communication lines between the entities involved and funds flow is mediated by the payment association through its own clearing and settlement processes. The two flows are linked but distinct.

The new guidelines

Historically, RBI regulations prevented non bank players from competing in this space. Regulations allowed only commercial banks to own and operate ATMs. This means that each ATM, in the view of the regulator, belonged to the acquiring bank. And no entity other than a commercial bank could do the acquiring part of this process.

Building and running ATMs is more of an IT/telecom business and many banks were not keen to create these capabilities. A significant amount of outsourcing was done by banks, whereby the maintenance and in many cases even the rollout of ATM's was done by independent companies for banks. But regulations dictated that all the crucial aspects of running the ATM network remained squarely with banks. Even the locations of ATMs - which banks needed to inform the RBI - were pegged to a bank. The new guidelines effectively open up most of the acquiring part of the process to non bank independent players. They clearly recognize that the information and the funds flow are distinct and while there may be some logic in keeping the funds flow within the ambit of commercial banks, the information flows can be performed by non banking entities. The new guidelines make some profound changes, including allowing:

  • Independent white label ATM providers to set up and operate ATM networks (without being a bank); these companies can apply for and get approvals for the locations of ATMs - the locations will be assigned to these companies and not to banks
  • Independent ATM networks to connect directly with network providers such as Visa Mastercard, and NFS - thus allowing them to pass on the payment instructions emanating from the ATM without having to go through the acquiring bank, While the cash settlement will continue to be via the acquiring banks (called sponsor banks under the new guidelines), an independent ATM operator can do such settlement through multiple sponsor banks
  • Allowing companies to tie up with multiple banks as acquiring (sponsor) banks; this will meant that even if the arrangement between a particular bank and an ATM operator is discontinued, the operator can tie up with another bank and continue to operate ATMs
  • ATM operators the freedom to offer value added services

Effectively, these changes imply that running the ATM network has now been recognized as an independent activity, but at the same time seeing that it is a business that needs the support by banks for activities such as managing cash and for settlement. Thus the RBI has taken significant part of running ATM networks out of the ambit of commercial banking.

Why is this a good idea? Building out the ATM network is not a core activity for banks. For banks, an ATM is a transaction point for customers. Setting up and running a large number of ATMs is an activity that adds little to the profitability and performance of banks but does add a significant amount of operational burden. This is the reason why many Indian banks started outsourcing ATM rollout and management once they reached a critical mass on ATMs. This is not the business of banking. At first blush, it is an IT or telecom business. But at a deeper level, it is closer to the retail business, with issues like location, branding, efficiency, multiple services, etc.

For independent white label operators, building out a large ATM network and squeezing operational efficiencies out of it would be the core business. They are expected to focus on much faster rollout of network, strategically thinking about locations, squeezing efficiencies in the management of the network, adding value added services, etc. An analog would be the case of money-changing business - what is popularly known as "Exchange Bureaus". For a long time only banks were allowed to run these and so we saw very few outlets even at airports and so on. This business was opened up for private independent players about a decade or so ago, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of outlets as well as the quality of their service. There are several classes of players that are likely to enter this business. Large established international players (eg Star, Pulse, NYCE from the US) should be interested as they would see India as a major growth market. Local players currently providing oursourcing services for ATM rollout and management would be another class of players that are likely to enter. ATM manufacturers (eg NCR, Diebold) also could look at this as an extension of their business. Other firms in related business such as telcos that provide the network connectivity could also consider entry. Each of these different classes of players have their own strengths and weaknesses. Time will tell which is the ideal business model. The competitive dynamics between these various kinds of players will give customers in India better ATM services in all respects: more locations, better locations, more services, and superior customer experience.

Many aspects of the white label ATM business will only become clear as the story unfolds. The most critical is the long term sustainable economics of the business which will determine the capital that is deployed into the business. While the RBI guidelines prescribe overall restrictions on the fees charged by the ATM operator to the bank, they stay away from prescribing the exact charges, which is the right approach. At first, there will be a bit of a competitive frenzy; some players will set some charges to very low or very high levels. It will be some time before stable pricing structures and levels emerge. The guidelines are not absolutely clear if these companies can develop independent brands for their networks (such as Most and Cirrus in the US). Such branding will be a crucial part of making white label ATM an independent business. My interpretation is that independent branding is not explicitly prohibited but it is not explicitly permitted either and clarity on this count would be very useful. Overall these guidelines are a move in the right direction. There is a lot in the payment space that is currently tied to commercial banking due to regulatory reasons. The evolution of technology and consumer behavior suggests that many aspects of payment business need not remain confined to banking and in fact taking them out could unleash innovation that would drive significant efficiency gain and consumer value. We can hope that the deregulation of ATMs is the first of several similar steps that the RBI takes to allow the emergence of a payments industry in India, distinct from the business of banking.


  1. What are the implications of this in terms of financial security? Does this open a door to fly-by-night operators who can setup ATM's to capture card information?

    I'm not very well versed with how the system works but I'm speculating opening it up to non-banking players would result in an increase of skimming devices or other activities.

    Please do correct me if I'm wrong :)

  2. How can this help in financial inclusion ? Will the ATM operators be interested in setting up ATMs in rural areas, which may not be economically viable for them ?

  3. What will be WLAs impact on the nationalised banks???

  4. Aditya, Firstly, I do not think you can have fly-by-night operators in this business. Owning and operating an ATM network is not something anybody can do. It requires significant capital investment upfront. You ll not have mom-and-pop companies operating WLAs. Secondly, there are regulations that determine how data should be handled which protect the customer as well as the bank. Skimming fraud is not a concern with WLAs.

  5. Who are the White Label ATM Operators shortlisted by RBI?

  6. Hi All, TATA Communications Payment Solutions Limited started first WLA operations in India and rolled out more then 500 ATMs across the country. @ Arun any damage takes place at WLA site then it becomes operators liability. Yes you are right RBI has strict guide lines for WLAO entry. International transactions are not yet allowed on WLA. To address few questions above, India is under penetrated on ATM population, still C class towns are not on radar of any bank however RBI has done a wonderful job by asking WLA operators to deploy in DEF class towns as well so that rural requirement can be addressed,some time back NABARD has closed deal with TCS and Infy for CBS implementation and post CBS the thing is card issuance and then bank's customers can go to these ATMs and withdraw money. Cooperative banks need not to invest in switch and ATMs, all they will have to part is transaction interchange fee, which is any way welcomed then servicing cost of a customer visiting branch. On security these ATMs are capable detecting frauds, and Banks are also monitoring very closely now a days.


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