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China Mobile puts boot into NFC

Orders three million competing chips

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China Mobile has placed an order for three million "RF SIM" devices, confirming that we won't be seeing NFC in China any time soon.

Near Field Communications World reports that China Mobile has placed the order for RF SIM chips, which come from Directel and compete with the Nokia-backed Near Field Communications (NFC) standard for bringing proximity payments to mobile phones.

The chips are expected to be used by those attending the Shanghai World Expo: visitors will be invited to swap out their existing SIMs for RF-enabled models to interact with the contactless payment infrastructure that will be put into place to show off what an RF SIM can do.

Which is pretty-much the same portfolio of applications as NFC, only with operator backing and Chinese ownership. Three million deployments is a lot more than NFC has ever managed, and an RF SIM has the distinct advantage of working in any existing mobile phone.

NFC's problem is the requirement for compatibility with legacy deployments, including payment systems such as MiFare (used by London's Oyster cards) which operate at 13.56MHz. MiFare and it's ilk work over very short ranges, typically a few centimetres, and can be powered by current induced by the reader. NFC, by necessity, shares those capabilities so will operate even if the phone's battery is dead, but that also means the transmitting at very low power, far too low to break out of a phone casing. This therefore forces NFC to rely on an external antenna to operate.

NFC implementations embedded in the SIM are supposed to be able to use an antenna in the phone's casing, only phones don't feature such a thing as operators have never asked for it. Thailand's TrueMove service gets round the problem by providing a sticky-backed antenna for gluing to the outside face of the phone's battery, with a tiny wire connected to the SIM, but such Heath-Robinson solutions are far from ideal.

Which brings us to RF SIM, a technology which eschews backwards compatibility and expects users to keep their phones charged or suffer the consequences.

Sim image and logo

Convenience, Celerity, Safe - according to the poorly-translated promotional material

With no reliance on induced power, the RF SIM can draw the entire six milliamps allowed by the SIM standard - similar to the power consumption of a Bluetooth transmitter when sending, which is ideal as the RF SIM also operates in the 2.4GHz band.

That increased power allows the signal to punch through the phone casing, apparently, providing a transmit range of five meters and enabling reception of a signal broadcast by a higher-power base station to be received from 100 meters away. Interfacing can be through a SIM Toolkit application on just about any GSM handset - if one is happy to use text menus - or a smartphone application could provide a much prettier interface where available.

Fans of badly-translated promotional animations might enjoy the video extolling the virtues of a system that can congratulate you for being on time for 100 days, and allow you to jump the queues in airports and cinemas.

Assuming you've got your battery charged - being unable to clock on at work because of a dead battery is a pain, but is it really that bad? The advantages, to an operator, of being able to deploy this technology without depending on handset manufacturers are considerable. Certainly considerable enough to ensure than any operator considering wireless will take a good look at RF SIM before finding themselves alone on the NFC bandwagon. ®

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