NFC (near-field communication) will hit the big time in mobile phones next year, joining an array of emerging features that carriers are clamoring for, according to communications chip maker Broadcom.
NFC allows quick data communication between phones and other devices at a range of just a few centimeters. After overcoming concerns about security and profitable business models, the technology is finally on mobile operators' radars, alongside features such as Wi-Fi Direct, BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) and improved location capability, according to Michael Hurlston, senior vice president of Broadcom's home and wireless networking business unit. He spoke on Wednesday at a press briefing in San Francisco.
Despite its potential for in-store payments, transit ticketing and other applications, NFC has taken years to gain broad support, especially in the U.S. Hurlston believes that is about to change. While only about 1 percent of handsets are equipped for NFC now, by next year about 10 percent to 15 percent of all phones will have it, even in the U.S., Hurlston predicted. Among smartphones, the percentage will be even higher, he said.
An upcoming announcement by Google, which is expected to involve an NFC-based system for making payments and redeeming coupons using Sprint phones, could help kick-start the trend in the U.S.
The NFC ecosystem of chip and handset vendors, banks, retailers and mobile operators finally has the necessary security tools, Hurlston said. Security is probably the main concern that has held NFC back for the past three or four years, he said. Now there are multiple mechanisms to prevent criminals from exploiting the technology by, for example, tapping into a consumer's banking information by getting very close to their phone, said Richard Barrett, director of product marketing in Broadcom's wireless connectivity group.
There is more than one approach to placing the security element of an NFC system on a phone, with carriers tending to favor the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) while Google and some handset makers prefer to do this job on the phone themselves, Barrett said. Broadcom is equipped to work with both of these scenarios, he said. On Monday, the company closed its US$42 million acquisition of SC Square, an Israeli security software developer. With SC Square, Broadcom acquired the intellectual property for one type of security tag, but it can also work with other types, he said.
Better indoor location tools will also start to appear in phones late this year and in the first half of 2012, according to Broadcom. The company is building into its chips the ability to find a location indoors with Wi-Fi and cellular signals, without using GPS (Global Positioning System), Hurlston said. The chips can also use all three together to enhance indoor location detection, he added. Carriers want handset makers to build in these capabilities in order to improve location-based services, according to Broadcom.
Carriers also are asking for silicon that can turn a smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, which Broadcom already sells, Hurlston said. "They push like crazy to get that feature," he said. Another feature Broadcom has begun to supply is BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), a form of the personal-area network technology that can be used in athletic shoes for workout tracking and in health-care monitoring products, he said. Broadcom plans to incorporate BLE into all its chipsets for mobile phones, Hurlston said.
While the mobile operators that order phones from manufacturers are rabid for new features to distinguish their products, they aren't pushing as hard for longer battery life, Broadcom's Barrett said. However, the original equipment manufacturers that make the devices want to see all steps taken to keep power consumption low, he said.
"The OEMs are pushing us very hard on power, and they're asking us for every last milliamp ... sometimes to a very difficult degree," Hurlston said. Among other things, Broadcom builds in mechanisms to run the inner core of a chip at a lower voltage and to automatically turn off radios that are not currently in use. Meanwhile, the increasing density of Broadcom's chip designs leads to higher power efficiency.
"Everything we're doing now, from a circuit design perspective, is focused on power," Hurlston said.