By CCN: When AT&T became the first major mobile provider to accept bitcoin for bill payments through the AT&T website and the myAT&T mobile app, 150 million AT&T customers received the opportunity to pay their cell phone bill using cryptocurrency.
“Whenever a Fortune 500 company accepts bitcoin, it’s always pretty interesting, because they don’t need the revenue,” says BitPay Chief Commercial Officer Sonny Singh, speaking to CCN. “And, the big brands are a little more conservative, while bitcoin is a newer payment option. You would think the cooler companies would be rushing to accept bitcoin before Dish Network, AT&T, and Microsoft.”
But, it’s been the other way around, Singh told CCN, speaking in an exclusive interview providing the inside scoop on how his company helped AT&T take the leap into crypto payments even as some come countries mull outright bans on bitcoin ownership.
“Big companies are the ones that are being more innovative than the smaller companies,” he says. “The smaller companies are new to the payments space. They don’t understand how it works, and they are just so busy with their road map. They can’t see that by adding bitcoin, they’re going to increase their revenue a couple of percentage points every month. They don’t seem to care about that, though its cheaper than a credit card, too. The big brands see that this is innovative, and they want to be a part of that.”
BitPay first began discussing bitcoin payments with AT&T about a year and a half ago.
“We stayed in touch and pitched them on different ideas about how they can accept bitcoin,” Mr. Singh told CCN.
Ultimately, the telecommunications behemoth decided to move forward with bitcoin about six months ago, even as the bitcoin price cratered amid a brutal market downturn.
“They had been asked by customers if they could pay in bitcoin,” says Mr. Singh. “So, they realized they had enough demand for it.” When a big brand decides to accept bitcoin, it’s a big deal operationally.
“The decision goes to the top, the CEO has to sign off on it, and then the media gets involved,” said Singh. “It can’t just be one analyst that wants to accept bitcoins. AT&T talked about it internally and they said they want to do this. Once a big company like AT&T approves something, they assign people to it and get stuff done.”
What’s the process like when after a big brand like AT&T chooses to accept bitcoin?
“The legal team looks at it,” Singh explains. “They look at government regulation and see that you’re allowed to make a bitcoin payment. Then the finance and tax team jump in. They ask, ‘How does that affect our taxes? Do we have to hold bitcoin? Does the finance have to account for this differently than a credit card transaction?’”
Once they realize they do not need to hold the bitcoin, thus minimizing their risk, they’re more open to accepting crypto payments.
“Then, it’s on to marketing,” says Singh. “They ask, ‘Is there a marketing angle?’ Then they do testing on how it works as far as the payment flow.’”
Once implemented, AT&T, which charges BitPay’s 1% transaction fee back to the consumer, didn’t think there would be much media attention.
“They thought they would make a statement and that’d be it,” said Singh. “They’re surprised by all the attention they got. It’s just another payment option to them, like adding Apple Pay or Google Pay.”
Singh takes exception with the concept perpetuated in the bitcoin community that AT&T is not really accepting bitcoin since they’re not holding it, choosing instead to cash out immediately for fiat currency.
“I don’t understand that logic,” Singh admits. “When you accept Visa and Mastercard, you don’t get Visa or Mastercard credits the next day, you get USD. So, BitPay runs their system the same way Visa runs it. You accept Visa and a bank sends you money — USD — the next day. No one holds Visa credits in their wallet.”
He also says it’d be hard for a company like AT&T to hold bitcoins on their balance sheets right now.
“They are just getting their toes wet in this,” says Singh. “It’s far-fetched to think they would hold bitcoin at this initial stage. Maybe a couple of years from now. But, right now, they’re just trying to learn about this thing, and they want to get live as soon and as easy as possible. If they were to hold bitcoin, that would open up tax issues that would delay everything quite dramatically.”
“With these big companies, you gotta go in phases. You have to get them to accept bitcoin, roll out to other products, and maybe they will hold a bunch of bitcoin eventually.”
One thing that is clear to Singh is that, when a big brand like AT&T accepts bitcoin, it makes it easier to convince others to do the same.
“When I tell brands now that AT&T just went live, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. Explain how it works, maybe we should do this, too,’” Singh said. “AT&T helped brands all over America move faster to accept bitcoin now, which is the most important thing.”
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