Report: Project Oscar, UK’s Multi-Carrier Mobile Payment JV, Could Get Regulator Nod This Summer

Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefonica’s O2 are all pushing ahead on their own mobile payment services, but in a bid to outpace companies like Apple and Google that may disintermediate them completely, these carriers are also working together. Now, a carrier JV in the UK, code-named Project Oscar, which would create a common mobile payments platform for all of them, is apparently nearing the final stages of regulatory approval.

The FT, citing two separate sources, notes that the okay could come this summer from antitrust regulators, with “few or no remedies” required for the approval. This is a turn of events, considering that the project has already been delayed by regulators a couple of times, scuppering plans to have the service ready by the Olympics in London this summer. Subsequently, carriers are beginning to prepare for a launch of the platform that would enable retailers, banks and others to link into the service to give it the kind of scale that many believe mobile payments will need if they are to succeed as a consumer service.

We have contacted the carriers for a comment on the story and the joint response has been a universal no comment: “Everything Everywhere [itself a JV for T-Mobile and Orange in the UK], Telefonica UK and Vodafone UK cannot comment on rumour or speculation regarding discussions with the EC concerning their proposed m-commerce joint venture,” a spokesperson told me.

Up to now, the party standing most in the way of Project Oscar, first announced over a year ago, has been Hutchison Whampoa-owned Three, the smallest of the mobile carriers in the UK. Three says that it has been shut out of the process of creating the platform, and all further developments since it has been announced. On the side of the bigger carriers, they have never ruled out offering the platform to other mobile service providers — but haven’t spelled out how that would work, either.

The significance of Project Oscar is that it does not appear to preclude the development of any operator-specific mobile payment services. Those individual developments have covered not just point of sale services, but also those for payments within apps. Among them, Vodafone is working with Visa, Deutsche Telekom has signed an agreement with MasterCard; France Telecom is driving hard on NFC on SIMs; and Telefonica, which has a strategic investment in Boku, just last week announced it would be enabling carrier billing for content from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and RIM’s app store.

The idea with Oscar, however, is that by creating a platform where individual services can interoperate, the prospect for merchants and payment providers of investing in making their products mobile-purchase-friendly will become significantly more attractive — and subsequently consumers will be more likely to use them, too. Or so the thinking goes.

Since announcing the JV in June 2011, the project has been in limbo while getting investigated by the European Commission’s antitrust authority. The report in the FT seems to be based on initial positive feedback.