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Countrywide Insurance gives wireless access to quotes and agents

In a world where cell phone users can already browse, buy, and bid with one hand tied behind their backs, California-based Countrywide Insurance Services (CIS) is believed to be the first insurance agency in the country to help consumers buy insurance using their wireless devices.

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Access to agents and quotes for homeowners insurance, home warranties, and life insurance are now available at the Countrywide Web site for consumers with Web-enabled hand-held devices such as cell phones and Palm Pilots.

In September, Progressive Insurance Corp. became the first insurer to offer wireless access to its Web site for getting auto insurance quotes, finding agents, contacting the claims department, and servicing existing policies.

For CIS, the ability to offer wireless access was an obvious outgrowth of a recent Web site retooling, says David Espenschied, CEO of the insurer's e-business division.

"The functionality on the relaunched Web site was available. So we thought, why not make use of that?" Espenschied says.

Doing business on the run could now include buying homeowners or life insurance.

CIS, which sells policies nationwide, had requests from customers wanting wireless ties to its Web site, especially brokers and real estate agents. But what really cinched it for the insurer were recent reports from Sprint and AT&T showing that 90 percent of new wireless phones manufactured by the end of 2000 will be Web-enabled.

"Our real target audience will be the people that use them every day," says Espenschied.

When it was time to go wireless, CIS decided to start with its three biggest lines: homeowners insurance, home warranty protection, and life insurance.

The agency also knew things would have to be simple for its wireless application. Feasability testing told CIS that anything with more than four fields on a digital phone would be "too much application" for customers, and might not be compatible with certain phones or broadband capability. So a minimum amount of information can be entered on a cell phone to obtain a homeowners quote without the use of security encryption software.

If a customer wishes to buy a policy after getting a quote, the wireless site provides a small link to click on that immediately dials an agent. CIS agents can also be found by typing in a ZIP code, says Espenschied.

Future applications may allow policyholders to make payments using their wireless devices, or to check on the status of a policy.

"With business increasingly conducted on the run, this technology is a boon to consumers," Espenschied says.

CIS is a subsidiary of Countrywide Credit Industries Inc., a holding company primary engaged in mortgage banking, that offers home equity loans. Some of the carriers available through Countrywide include Travelers, The Hartford, Safeco, and Farmers Insurance.

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