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NFC? It might work says Department for Transport

£355,000 in hard cash for wishy washy answer

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Following two years of study, and £355,000 in cash, the Department for Transport has concluded that NFC works OK for ticketing. Probably.

The study, which was conducted by Consult Hyperion, included giving NFC handsets to 40 people for six months, and bench testing of Nokia's NFC handset as a payment terminal. The 52-page report (pdf) concludes that NFC ticketing makes sense as long as handsets support it properly, and that handsets can probably be used as terminals once the standards support it.

The three aims of the project were to establish if users could pay for transport using a mobile phone, test if a mobile phone could operate as a terminal for collecting tickets, and document what changes to the ticketing standards would be needed to make the latter happen. The conclusions being yes, just about, and some encryption is probably a good idea.

The project report glosses over the lack of NFC handsets - apparently "NFC capability is expected to be widespread in most new mobile handsets by the end of 2010", so that's OK then. For the study the Nokia 6131 was used, despite its tiny NFC antenna limiting the range to a couple of centimetres - the report cites lack of range as one of the most-serious problems with NFC in phones, but concludes that Nokia will fix that.

The study also skips over the other critical issues, limiting itself to pointing out that customers' annoying habit of changing handsets and networks is a right pain.

It does say that lots of encryption will be needed if transactions are going to take place over the internet, even suggesting https might be suitable. The report also is clear that a phone can't handle the security alone - only the SIM can be trusted, which makes it even more of a shame that Nokia recently dropped its only handset to use the SIM for NFC (the 6216). Luckily "NFC-enabled handsets will gain significant traction during 2010", according to the report.

But the 40 trialists, 25 of whom bothered to complete a satisfaction questionnaire, seemed to like the technology, particularly the ability to see their remaining balance. The report concludes that NFC tickets work, as long as one can put the users through a suitable training course - we can't help wondering if that will scale.

For the handset-as-terminal part of the project testing was limited to the bench, with the conclusion that transactions would have to be completed on-line - requiring reliable connectivity and lashings of encryption.

When it comes conforming to the UK's Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation standards - the inevitable "more work needed" crops up, but suggestions have been made to the standards committee about dividing the transactional processing between the handset and the back end.

So NFC handsets can be used as tickets, and might work as terminals - surely conclusions worth £355,000 of anyone's money, especially ours.

Bootnote: Thanks to NFC World for spotting the publication, which wasn't widely reported for some reason.

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