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Visa and BofA plot operatorless NFC

Hitting New York next month

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Bank of America and Visa will be running trials of NFC technology next month but the network operators won't be involved this time, as companies sidestep the traditional process.

The trials will use NFC circuits built into MicroSD cards that can be slotted into a phone or a specially-equipped iPhone case to provide secure storage and radio communications without being dependent on the network operator or the phone's manufacturer.

Previous attempts to get Near Field Communications into mobile phones have depended on the manufacturer's compliance and, as network operators pay for the phones, on the operator's largess. That works in Japan where the operator is also the bank and owns the payment system, but elsewhere the conservative nature of operators has stymied the technology.

Bypassing the operator/manufacturer means retrofitting handsets with radio circuits and secure storage. Stickers can provide some of the functionality, but not full NFC (where the chip is both tag and reader). Such solutions can't communicate with the phone's screen either.

Removable storage should work, but being sandwiched between the battery and motherboard isn't ideal for radio propagation. China Mobile gets around that problem by dropping NFC-compliance and upping the transmission power, but that option is only available to the largest of companies.

The traditional positioning of the removable memory has changed lately - modern handsets have a MicroSD slot positioned on the back, under a radio-transparent plastic cover, so getting a signal out isn't such an issue. Smartphones also allow third parties to add applications, without having to work with the network operator.

American operators are waking up to NFC, with Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Discover working together to create a proximity-payment standard, but if Visa and the Bank of America can cut the operator out of the loop that may be redundant before it's launched.

So these trials are a big deal for an industry struggling to work out who owns the phone you thought was yours. ®

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