As the U.S. adoption of EMV-chip cards encounters legal roadblocks and merchant opposition, critics have questioned whether the card networks' October 2015 deadline is overly aggressive.

However, by some estimates, it can take six months on the short end to a year or more for merchants to have point-of-sale equipment, payment gateway and processing codes tested and certified for EMV use. A merchant that starts today might finish with a year to spare – but many are still waiting.

And if merchants, issuers and equipment manufacturers wait too long, they will find themselves at the end of a long waiting list at the EMV testing labs. Such a wait could add several months to the process.

The card brands established EMVco to certify the labs that will conduct the EMV testing around the world, but "it's a very complicated process, and EMVco is actually very small, so the number of labs is limited," says Mansour Karimzedah, chief technology officer of SCIL-EMV Academy and co-chair of the EMV Migration Forum debit network committee.

The EMVco website lists six accredited testing labs, all located in Europe or Asia. However, France's Fime has established a lab in California for EMV and Near Field Communication testing, and Karimzedah predicts North America will have about five or six such sites overall.

Before a merchant can obtain a new EMV-capable terminal, the manufacturer must send the terminal to a lab. The labs test both terminals and payment cards, Karimzedah says.

In addition to the EMVco applications, which represent the "main body" for EMV credit and debit cards, each card brand has a slightly different EMV application on its card that represents "a small layer of coding" on top of the EMVco apps, Karimzedah says.

The brand coding differentiates the cards for routing and handling transactions. "The card brands conduct their own tests as well, but they are normally done at the same labs," he adds.

When considering each terminal is different, and merchants want them set up to accept all card brands, the amount of testing needed can be daunting, Karimzedah says.

Before the upgrade process can even begin, it may take six to eight months for merchants to understand all of the facets of EMV integration and a year to plan for it with various vendors and purchase orders, he adds.

"Vendors are not waiting around with equipment," Karimzedah says. "They are selling to whoever comes first, then they have to manufacture the products."

By waiting to order equipment, merchants are simply adding another potential bottleneck to the process, he says.

The payments industry also awaits the Federal Reserve Board's response to a court ruling that challenges its interpretation of the Durbin amendment, which mandates how debit cards are routed. Visa has said that resolving the stress this situation has caused is one of the highest priorities at the card network, and has hinted that it might soon provide further guidance to the industry.

Despite the many issues surrounding EMV adoption, simply extending the card networks' deadlines may not be the best answer for U.S. merchants, says Ennio Ponzetto, U.S. country manager for Milan-based EMV technology provider TAS Group.

Merchants need to "get a jump on EMV now," Ponzetto adds. "It's going to happen, so I am hoping the network rails will stick to their original timeline because we don't like seeing the goal posts moved now."

Ponzetto suspects Visa is agreeable to adjusting the timelines, but MasterCard seems "very determined to maintain deadlines," he says.

MasterCard intends to use its experience from other countries' EMV migrations to make the process in the U.S. as easy as possible for its merchants, says Carolyn Balfany, MasterCard's senior vice president and group head of U.S. product delivery.

“For merchants and acquirers, the terminal deployment process is simplified through the ability to self-test,” Balfany says. “This allows our customers to help minimize costs and resources, while ensuring they can address the scale and demand for a consistent cardholder experience.”

MasterCard works with merchants and test-tool providers to establish a streamlined process, Balfany says.

While a lot of testing activity is expected during 2015, the full migration to EMV will take several years because merchants are free to choose when, or if, they want to convert to chip-based cards, Balfany adds.

Visa, in a prepared statement, says its goal is to "make the EMV migration process simple and efficient for all U.S. stakeholders." To that end, Visa has developed a set of chip implementation recommendations to minimize the cost and complexity of deployment and streamline the card testing and certification process, it says.

In the past, Visa has often reminded merchants and issuers alike that the October 2015 date is not a literal deadline – merchants who miss it or deliberately ignore it would still be able to accept payment cards, but must be comfortable with an added fraud burden. (EMV cards would still have a magnetic stripe to make payments with these merchants).

Indeed, merchants such as Murphy Oil USA have said they find the costs of fraud liability favorable to the costs of a companywide shift to EMV hardware. Fuel merchants have an additional two years to shift to EMV hardware if they elect to do so.

Even retailers who consider themselves in a good position for the EMV adoption realize that the testing period could vary based on each merchant's needs and the timelines set by their peers.

"We do all of our payment processing under one specification and one code, so we just have to wait on our processor, Vantiv, to release credit card spec for certification," says

Christina Garcia, senior manager for retail systems at Office Max.

Office Max is in "a better position than some others" for EMV migration because the company owns the software on the connecting gateway and the point of sale gateway, meaning the network communicates through one specification, Garcia says.

"Testing is still a six-month project," Garcia adds. "We really encourage retailers to take a look at their infrastructure and determine what makes sense for them."

Merchants waiting on specifications or codes from third-party vendors can add weeks or months onto the testing process, she says.

Merchants rarely have to send equipment in for testing, unless a device needs a significant upgrade to accept EMV, Karimzedah says. But equipment manufacturers may still delay merchants. Those vendors may face their own backups with orders and testing dates, Karimzedah adds. "If the lab sends it back because of a problem, they have to schedule another date for testing and maybe wait another two months," he says.

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