University of Alabama test provides lessons on digital ID, payments

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When the University of Alabama’s Bryant Denny Stadium is full, it’s as populated as Tuscaloosa, the town that surrounds it. That’s a lot of people to move in and out, even if only eight times a year. It creates a proving ground for how well automated ID mixes with other transactions in a high-stress environment.

The move to dump passwords in favor of more flexible authentication will likely happen in clusters, with schools providing many of the factors necessary, such as a young user base and accounts that can serve both access and transactions. But like most environments in which apply digital ID, expanding it beyond the original deployment will be the true test.

The University of Alabama hopes the logistics of its football stadium will spark an overall push to automate broader activities. “It can be hot and crowded before games. We have to be efficient there, and moving it to the phone is a much better option,” said Jeanine Brooks, director of Action Card for the University of Alabama.

The football stadium is part of an upgrade that will link the student ID system to Google Pay, which was just added, with iOS and Apple Pay launched a few months ago. The stadium seats more than 101,000 people, though presently the payment and digital ID tie-in is available for only student tickets.

The university hopes that by including digital sports tickets with other functions, such as payments at local stores and access to classrooms, laboratories, libraries, dorms and other facilities, all of these actions will be easier.

Football is one of the more obvious use candidates for this system. It requires thousands of tickets to be processed, and linking ticketing and stadium entrance to concessions via the student ID is a way to encourage adoption. The service was also transportable, with the student ID/Google Pay combination available at the recent Citrus Bowl in Orlando, a neutral site.

“The student identity is the authoritative source,” Brooks said. “Once it’s established the student has the right to be at these facilities, the other transactions and access to other resources can follow.”

This is the underlying goal of all digital ID projects, which are designed to share authentication among different settings. The users control their identity — a building that provides access and a store that accepts payments only knows the user for that singular purpose.

While the goal is easy, the execution of the projects often proves difficult because of competitive issues among partners, or bridging the gap between legacy technology and new forms such as distributed ledgers.

One of the key features is handling transactions that take place outside of core university functions, such as the Citrus Bowl and the more than 80 businesses near the University that accept traditional closed loop “student money” accounts like meal plans or Bama Cash.

Most of these merchants accept mobile wallets like Apple Pay and Google Pay, enabling the student ID to exist within those mobile wallet apps. “That means the students can use the same mobile app to check out books, attend events, and enter the dorm,” Brooks said.

Alabama is one of 15 universities that have tied Google Pay to student ID, with other schools including Temple University, Duke, Jones Hopkins and Georgetown.

While universities are amenable to tying ID systems to payments — universities have linked meal plans to student access cards for decades — there are challenges in extending that access further. Beyond Alabama’s technology working at for an event in Orlando, there are still barriers in allowing student IDs to be used for payments universally, said Jeff Staples, vice president of market development at Transact, the technology company behind the third-party "Pay" deployment at the universities.

Managing PCI or EMV compliance for a diverse mix of transaction points that need to be accessible to a specific population of students and staff members is one challenge, Staples said, adding these security measures are specific to points of sale and presently don't mix well with closed-loop facility access.

“There are rules of engagement that make it hard for universities to issue credentials in massive amounts and create acceptance scenarios that apply for a full open loop system,” Staples said, adding it will eventually be possible to create a baseline that satisfies these constraints while allowing for wider use outside of the university environment.

One near-term use case is transit. Transact is working with Apple to integrate Apple’s Express Transit feature, which would serve both high-volume campus facilities and local transit systems, according to Staples.

A link to transit could also encourage more general usage, which could boost adoption when the restrictions of the closed loop campus environment are addressed.

“For any student that gets used to using his or her phone for most activities on campus, such as access or payments, it could be indeed habit forming,” said Zilvinas Bareisis, a senior analyst at Celent, noting the challenges of the closed university environment. “That allows developing and experimenting with more innovative services, which may not necessarily be available in a broader world.”

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