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Broadening NFC's scope of applications

Posted: 27 Jun 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:near-field communications? contactless payment? Google Wallet?

Given its ability to pass data wirelessly within a few inches, near-field communications (NFC) technology has led to several advancements. An entire ecosystem is all set to support applications ranging from contactless payment cards to authentication between mobile devices. This ecosystem includes chips such as NFC-enabled microcontrollers, standards for wireless transactions, and protocol stacks for handling various communication tasks.

Already, contactless payment cards can be used at 51,000 merchant locations worldwide. NFC-enabled devices such as smartphones and tablets can emulate contactless payment cards. The devices can be used for services such as e-ticketing; e-couponing; secure file sharing; and access control in offices, homes and vehicles. Tapping both NFC and geotargeting technologies, the Google Wallet NFC payments program has lined up such partners as Citi, First Data, MasterCard and Sprint for a launch this year in San Francisco and New York City in the United States.

Biometric passports, meanwhile, use contactless smart cards to enhance security. And so-called smart poster systems provide a different way to access location-based interactive advertising.

For the latter systems, the user initiates access by passing an NFC-enabled handset over the poster's RFID tag. The handset then connects via the mobile network to the appropriate back-end server. Based on both the user and poster IDs, the server can send back information tailored to the user and the physical location. Users can get directions, learn about a product or offer, get coupons and make reservations.

Figure 1: In one scenario, a handset can integrate near-field communications using a contactless front end (CLF) that connects to the subscriber identity module via a standard single wire protocol (SWP) interface. Next-generation, integrated implementations provide greater flexibility.

To protect security, devices such as smart cards and secure-element ICs provide hardware tamper-resistance features, public key infrastructure (PKI) acceleration for authentication, and hardware encryption of the communication channel and/or contents. Those features address high-level EMV (Europay, MasterCard and Visa) security requirements. Supporting software ranges from drivers to middleware and software development kits.

Beyond the NFC hardware and software components is an ecosystem of mobile network operators and transaction service providers. A trusted service manager (TSM) links mobile network operators, banks, service providers and NFC mobile devices. Mobile network operators such as Isis (a joint venture among AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon in North America) may provide the TSM functions.

NFC hardware architectures
Figure 1 shows one possible implementation of NFC in a handset. A contactless front end (CLF), such as the Renesas RF21 NFC controller, handles RF connectivity and interfaces to the handset's application processor and subscriber identity module (SIM) card.

Figure 2: In the next-gen NFC implementation, a microcontroller integrates the CLF and secure element (SE) to enable versatile NFC transaction capabilities using the internal SE or external SIM cards.

An alternative configuration (figure 2), which improves flexibility, integrates the CLF within a secure microcontroller such as the Renesas RF21S. This next-generation approach allows the NFC functionality to work either independently of the SIM card or with the SIM card as required. The secure NFC microcontroller can handle all the functionality for applications such as EMV financial transactions, transit system payment cards, ticketing and ID cards.

Additionally, the microcontroller supports an NFC modem capability that enables additional services via the SIM card or other secure elements in the handset. Because such an approach maximizes versatility, the microcontroller also suits apps in retail equipment, laptops and tablets.

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