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NFC in a SIM: They might just have done it

Inside Secure demonstrates NFC in every phone

By Bill Ray, 16 Nov 2011

It's not the first time the claim has been made, but this time it's backed, and demonstrated, by a reputable manufacturer, so every phone could be getting NFC soon.

Inside Secure is an established player in the smart card industry, and promises to demonstrate a SIM with embedded Near Field Communications circuitry at the Cartes show currently taking place in Paris. If it works reliability then it could bring NFC capability to any GSM phone, and, more important, hand control back to the network operators.

Putting Near Field Communications, or any radio technology, into a SIM is tough. The SIM is tiny, and often sandwiched between the battery and the motherboard, so getting a radio signal in, or out, is really hard. SIMs also only get six milliamps of current to work with, which encourages frugality.

Back in 2006, Telecom Italia announced it had Zigbee working from a SIM card, but never managed to demonstrate it working. Blue Sky Positioning promised to pick up a GPS signal from inside a phone, but despite signing up Telmap (now part of Intel) in March 2010 we've still not seen the promised demonstration of the technology.

Near Field Communications is particularly hard to implement as it needs an induction loop, so it can run unpowered, as well as an antenna with which to communicate. Inside Secure has dealt with that by giving up on unpowered use entirely: if the SIM can't draw current from the phone then the NFC component won't work.

That sounds like a big deal, but the NFC SIM won't draw much in the way of current and we're talking about basic handsets with battery life measured in days, not the power-hungry smartphones which tend to grab the headlines.

Once one gives up the idea of unpowered operation, then things do get easier: China Mobile mucked about with an entirely proprietary system called RF SIM, to the point of deploying three million of them, on that basis, but now seems to have rejoined the push to NFC.

Inside Secure reckons its NFC antenna runs 5mm by 10mm, which will squeeze into the standard SIM form factor (no NFC SIM for the iPhone crowd, with their micro-SIM requirement). The company admits that its solution will only work from around four centimetres (compared to 10cm for a normal NFC card), and that it won't work in every handset but should work in most – both details lending credibility to the announcement.

If NFC can be put into the SIM then it opens up the technology to much larger markets, but also puts it firmly under the control of the network operator, who will get to decide which payment schemes are implemented in the NFC secure element (which is also embedded in the SIM).

That depends on the NFC SIM working reliably in a wide range of handsets, and being cheap enough to be worth deploying, but could offer network operators a distinct first-mover advantage in developing, and developed, markets. ®

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