FCC takes payments online

FCC takes payments online

System accepts credit card transactions via remittance form, CFO says

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

The Federal Communications Commission now accepts credit card payments for many of its license applications, renewals and routine regulatory fees.

Behind the scenes, the credit card transactions flow through systems at the Treasury Department and a Washington electronic commerce company without FCC's servers ever seeing a card number.

The year-old system known as ROSIE'for Remittance over Secure Internet E-commerce'accepts payments by MasterCard or Visa for any transaction that can be paid via FCC's remittance Form 159, FCC chief financial officer Mark Reger said.

FCC's online payment system keeps credit card transactions separate from the rest of the system's license applications.

'No matter what you're paying the FCC, it's the common form,' Reger said.

Form 159 users also can choose to pay by bank automated clearinghouse (ACH) electronic funds transfer, or they can simply print out the form and mail it with a check. But credit cards are most convenient for people paying relatively small fees of a few dollars up to a few thousand dollars.

'You really want to do large payments with ACH,' Reger said.

The commission started accepting credit cards online in August of last year, said Brian Donnelly, a project manager for contractor Computech Inc. of Bethesda, Md. He worked on setting up ROSIE.

ROSIE has no individual entry point or home page, Donnelly said. To see the electronic version of Form 159 and choose the 'charge it' option, prospective users must first register online for a license.

Through Aug. 22, FCC racked up 8,964 Form 159 credit card payments totaling about $1 million, Reger said.''That's a drop in the bucket for the commission, which annually takes in $185 million in regulatory fees, $28 million in application fees and potentially billions from auctioning chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum. Over the past year, however, the money that comes in through ROSIE has been doubling almost every month, Reger said.

Slow to grow

Growth has slowed now that the system has been online for a year, and most people who are inclined to make electronic payments are doing so, Donnelly said.

For the largest transactions involving six- or seven-figure sums, FCC requires payment by bank wire transfers, Donnelly said.

Through an agreement with Treasury, Govolution of Washington administers the server that handles the MasterCard and Visa numbers for FCC's ROSIE and several other agencies. Govolution is a spinoff of the e-commerce unit of Bixler Inc., another Washington company that started developing the system in 1997.

FCC and Computech were trying to develop their own e-payment system at the time and sought guidance from Treasury, which has oversight of all government e-payment systems, Donnelly said. Treasury officials informed them of the work being done with Bixler.

'We were very concerned about the risks associated with credit card numbers being processed through several hands,' Donnelly said.

For security reasons, credit card numbers never come into the FCC system, Reger said. Even the paper Form 159 has a separate section for credit card information, and the bank tears off and keeps that portion so the commission never receives the number or expiration date.

When FCC's online filers choose to pay by credit card, ROSIE invisibly transfers them over to a secure, 128-bit-encrypted site on Govolution's servers, Govolution chief executive officer Jonathan M. Prince said. The site replicates the look and feel of FCC's other license-related Web pages.

'When you go to the payments page, the graphics look the same, and the citizens or businesses still think they're completely within the realm of the government agency,' Prince said.

After the financial institution authorizes the credit card transaction, Govolution generates a transaction confirmation number to send to the customer and to FCC. That number identifies the transaction in case the customer needs to contact FCC about it later.

Credit card numbers pass from the Govolution environment to the financial institution, then are deleted from the Govolution site.

'It's an innovative approach to security,' Donnelly said.

Govolution's system is based on the Extensible Markup Language and the company's proprietary technology, Govolution chief technical officer Joshua E. Bixler said.

Treasury has designated two financial institutions, Bank of America and Mellon Bank, to clear the credit card transactions, said Brett Smith, a program manager in the electronic money group within Treasury's Financial Management Service.

When agencies approach FMS to set up e-payment systems, Treasury officials point them toward the Govolution system because of its economies of scale, Smith said.

Currently 24 agencies use the e-commerce system and another 30 are in various stages of development, Smith said.

'In terms of trying to implement e-business, this is the right architecture,' Smith said.

Before the Web, many routine licensing processes were paper-intensive, and payment processing contributed to delays, Reger said.

The law requires all FCC bureaus and offices to confirm payment before processing a license application or renewal form. Instead of waiting for a check to clear, they receive credit card authorization within seconds, and the application can start the review process faster.

'If you mail a check, occasionally it gets lost,' Reger said. But people using credit cards get notified of approval right away, 'so it's good for both parties.'

For several years FCC has been retraining workers whose jobs have been eliminated by such technological changes. Some employees who used to process paperwork now work at the agency's call center, Reger said.

One slight problem

ROSIE has had one glitch so far, he said. Early on, when a few impatient users hit the 'charge' button and didn't get a response, they pressed the button multiple times'and got charged multiple fees.

Fortunately for the 30 or so people to whom this happened, agency officials immediately sent letters and credited the excess fees to their accounts, Reger said.

'They probably got our letter before they got their bill,' he said.

For the first time this month, FCC will accept credit card payments during its annual regulatory fee filing period, Donnelly said.

In the past, payments have been via paper or downloadable software.

The window for paying regulatory fees starts today and runs through Sept. 20. FCC officials expect ROSIE to be heavily used, Donnelly said, especially as the deadline draws near.

'The FCC's keen on providing the license holder with as much flexibility as possible in making payments to FCC,' he said. 'This is just another step in that direction.'

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