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Broadcom's new chip aims NFC at every smartphone

'Quad-combo' Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM, NFC chip provides no-brainer bonking

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Communications chipmaker Broadcom has made it easier and more cost-effective for smartphone manufacturers to include the new hotness of tap-to-communicate near-field communication (NFC) in their handsets with the release of a new quad-radio wireless chip that provides support for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM, and NFC.

Broadcom's new BCM43341 is a step up from the BCM4334 used by Apple, Samsung, and others, adding NFC to that earlier chip's support for 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and FM radio by incorporating onto the same die the capabilities of Broadcom's BCM20793 chip, for which it provides a standards-based NFC software stack for Android.

At a meeting with reporters on Tuesday in San Francisco, the general manager of Broadcom's wireless connectivity combo group, Michael Hurlston, said that the inclusion of NFC along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will induce handset makers to adopt NFC, just as the addition of Wi-Fi to his company's Bluetooth chip drove the acceptance of that wireless LAN technology.

NFC infographic by Broadcom

Broadcom is bullish on NFC (click to enlarge)

"What we saw very much in Wi-Fi was that there was a big, ingrained move against it. Carriers were thinking, 'Oh, why do I want Wi-Fi?' and consumers, 'Why do I want Wi-Fi?' But when we made it part of the Bluetooth solution which was already readily accepted, Wi-Fi now... Well, you can't find a smartphone without it."

According to Mohamed Awad of Broadcom's mobile and wireless group, "When you think about NFC, you need to think about it as a helper technology," helping users, for example, do such things as simply tapping their smartphone onto an NFC-enabled tablet or television to begin streaming a video shot on that smartphone to the other, larger-screen device, without having to dig their way through menus, transferring files, or other such less-than-brain-dead-easy setup chores.

Much of the buzz about NFC has been in anticipation of its use as a retail-purchasing technology, but Awad advises not holding your breath in anticipation of that eventuality.

"I absolutely believe payments is going to happen," he said. "People are certainly looking at payments – you've got Isis, you've got Google Wallet, you've got lots of different drives towards payments today."

But those efforts are meeting resistance. "The reality of payments is that people need to get comfortable with the technology. They have to get comfortable with the idea that 'I'm touching two devices together and something's happening'," Awad said. "The second barrier is the infrastructure. People are still used to paying with their credit cards."

Using NFC for retail purchases, Awad believes, is still about two or three years away. That said, he believes that there's still a lot to said for NFC today. He cited as one example Samsung's massive marketing campaign for their new handsets that feature NFC, which doesn't mention payments at all, but rather touts touching two devices together to share content.

Both Awad and Hurlston believe that their new BCM43341 "Quad-combo Wireless Connectivity Solution" will make it relatively trivial for handset makers to add NFC to their phones. After all, those handset designers will no longer have to find space and power for separate NFC and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/FM chips – and space is always at a premium in smartphones.

And speaking of power, Awad said that Broadcom has gone to some lengths to ensure that adding NFC to their new wireless communications chip won't suck a noticeably larger amount of power from already overworked smartphone batteries.

When the BCM43341 is acting as a card or as a tag device, Awad said, the power drain can be "as low as nothing, because it can actually harvest the current it needs from the field."

And when the device is polling, he said, "at its peak it would consume up to 200 milliamps, which is actually a significant amount. But we have some unique algorithms in there which allow it not to poll all the time and just detect the presence of a tag. So that brings that average current consumption down to about 100 microamps."

And beside not costing much in battery power, it shouldn't cost OEMs all that much more in good ol' dollars (or yen, or pounds, or euros, or whatever) to add the new chip to their phones. The BCM43341 will, indeed, cost more per part than the BCM4334, but it will be less than that older Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/FM chip plus the separate Broadcom NFC chip – although neither Awad nor Hurlston said by exactly how much.

From their point of view, the ability for handset manufacturers to have all four radios on one chip will make incorporating it into their designs a no-brainer – especially if all their competitors are doing so.

"We think that this chip is going to do for NFC what the original combo chip did for Wi-Fi," Hurlston said with confidence. ®

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