Kiosk Newsbit

Cash Kiosks and `CoolMail' Offer Technology to the Unwired (8/31)

WASHINGTON -- Internet guru Esther Dyson views her virtual world as ``a source of untold productivity -- or a medium for terrorists, con artists, and untrammeled lies and viciousness.'' It's also a place that favors the technologically elite -- savvy users with smooth access to cyberspace and other nifty digital tools.

But in the real world, whether by dint of age, class, education or race, many folks remain technologically deprived. Prosperous people enjoy free banking privileges online while less prosperous ones are often relegated to check-cashing emporiums in tired zones deserted by neighborhood banks.

Since minimum-wage earners live largely in a cash culture, technology that better connects them to cash helps right the social balance. One such innovation, dubbed Mr. Payroll, is a self-service electronic kiosk that cashes any kind of check for all comers at all hours.

Says Mr. Payroll president Michael Stinson: ``Essentially, we are enabling low-income underbanked people to live easier lives. It's a large demographic pool.'' (The company, based in Fort Worth, Texas, is a branch of Cash America International, a leading pawn broker.)

Stinson's cardless machines use state-of-the-art digitized cameras to scan faces and, if necessary, search bank data bases before funds spew out. Fees are 1 percent for payroll and government checks, 2 percent for money orders and tax refunds, and 3 percent for personal checks.

In the year since the initial rollout, 57 Mr. Payroll kiosks have been sold to convenience outlets and the like for $55,000 apiece. Now installed in 15 states, they have already cashed 270,000 checks valued at more than $72 million.

Planetary Motion Inc. of Glencoe, Ill., is yet another start-up firm offering technology for the masses. Their bright idea is a text-to-speech conversion service that delivers e-mail by phone, bypassing personal computers.

``Phones are everywhere and people figured out long ago how to use them,'' notes Robert Newman, the company's chairman and chief technology officer.

After undergoing a year-long trial in Chicago, CoolMail has rolled out in 13 major cites and will span the nation within another eight weeks. Although the basic service is free, users hear a 10-second ad before retrieving their messages. The deliveries can be from their CoolMail address, or, via cyberspace jumpers, from any other subscribed site that tracks standard Internet protocols.

Voice responses to other CoolMail users are also free, making the service particularly useful to people on the go and to the visually impaired.

Within a few months, Newman said, without ever having to fire up a browser, CoolMail subscribers also will be able to filter all their incoming messages. Alternatively, at the touch of a button, they can respond to mail with a direct phone call. CoolMail plans to add fax capability to its current two-way conversions, enabling all three media to function interchangeably together.

While the companies haven't talked, phones in a Mr. Payroll kiosk could be rigged to access CoolMail, thereby allowing, say, students to let parents know they had just cashed their check, all without paying for a call home.


(Andrew J. Glass is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is [email protected])

Thanks Kinetic!

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