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Broadcom Explains the Current State, and Future, of NFC (Interview)

Mohamed_Awad

Near-field communications, or NFC as most people refer to the technology, is already active in millions of handsets around the globe. This year, U.S. carriers began shipping smartphones enabled with the technology. The Galaxy S III, the HTC One X, the Galaxy Nexus… we could name several more. Carriers are also implementing mobile payment solutions. Sprint, for example, uses NFC for mobile payments through Google Wallet and T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon Wireless have teamed up on the ISIS intiative.

However, NFC’s use-case extends far beyond mobile payments. The Nexus 7 tablet, and other devices, for example, can take advantage of NFC and Android Beam to transfer images, photos and more with a simple tap.

If NFC was a growing tree, and in many ways it is, it would just be poking through the soil. The uses are nearly infinite, depending on where it’s implemented, and the far reaches of its branches are just being imagined.

TechnoBuffalo recently spoke with Mohamed Awad, Broadcom associate product line director, NFC Treasurer/Officer and Member of the Board for the NFC Forum to discuss where NFC is now, and where it’s headed next.

Q: Where will we see NFC in the future?

A: The thing about NFC is it’s being put into phones at an alarming clip right now. Google announced during Google I/O that a million Android phones were being activated weekly. That’s a pretty amazing rate. The reason, now, that NFC is getting attached into phones is really for payments. So, mobile payments are certainly the end game, but the reality of payments is that they aren’t the main stream use case for NFC in 2012. It’s going to take time for people to get used to the technology, learn it, and become comfortable with it. The irony is that even though it’s being subsidized and put into phones for payments, people are using it for simplified connectivity.

You can touch two devices together and something interesting happens. Two Nexus 7s touch together, for example, and you can shoot an app from one to another or shoot other content. Galaxy S III has S Beam, a simple type of thing that ties Wi-Fi to NFC also.

Q: Where do you see NFC being used in the home?

A: I’m at my kid’s soccer game and I take a video of an amazing goal that he scores. I get home and I want to show it to my wife. I want to show it to her on the big screen TV. today, I have to go through a series of menus, setup a Wi-Fi Direct connection, establish encryption, transfer the video, and then tear it down. It’s a long process. With NFC I can just take the tablet or phone, tap it to the TV and now the video streams.

Q: Why not just use Bluetooth?

One of the things we (Broadcom) sell a lot of is Bluetooth chips. It’s amazing to me when I walk around and I think about how low Bluetooth usage is in many cases. People in the industry tell us that consumers return headsets not because they don’t work, but because they can’t figure out how to pair them. The complexity is getting consumers over that threshold. The idea [behind NFC] is that I can take a headset and tap it to my phone to connect, or tap another time to disconnect, is an important feature.

Q: How does NFC work, in layman’s terms?

A: NFC is not being used for the actual high bandwidth data transfer, it’s just for establishing the connection, unifying the physical and the digital world. Today, everyone knows how to plug in a socket. It’s a physical motion and everyone gets it. NFC simplifies your intentions down to a simple physical action of touch. I touch the phone or tablet to the TV and that act sets off a Wi-Fi Direct connection and, because I’m already looking at my content on the phone, it starts to stream to the TV.

Q: How far are we from NFC TVs becoming a reality?

A: I think that’s not too far away from this point. We have iterest from manufactures across all types of consumer electronics. The Nintendo Wii U with was announced with NFC.

Q: Where else can NFC be used, outside of simple data transfers and mobile payments?

A: There are whole classes of applications for NFC … sort of where commerce meets social meets coupling … all of those things. Ticketing is a great example of that. Is ticketing payments or is it access control? I don’t know, but at the end of the day it’s a great application. You can do this today, in some places. If you walk up to the bus [in some cities] there are smart posters with tags on them and you can tap and find out when your bus is running late. Or, you’re at the stop, and it’ll say the bus is arriving in three minutes. The whole transport infrastructure already has a heavy presence of NFC within it. The natural migration there will be to eliminate the need for paper tickets.

Boston, New York, San Francisco, LA, Hong Kong, Tokyo – it’s all over the world. I was in San Francisco and I was parking at a meter and it had a tag where you could pay for your parking with NFC. That’s already there. It’s also in a lot of the cabs in New York and San Francisco.

Q: There was a hangup on NFC mobile payments a few years ago because it was unclear who would be paid. Is that resolved?

A: Certainly whenever there is money on the table everyone wants to make sure they get their piece of the pie. That, in many ways, was yesterday’s problem. Much of the business relationships have been well established now and we’re starting to see roll-outs. Mobile wallets – and any technology in general – should have competing tech to prosper. Consumers want choice. I think we’re at a point now where the business model, and how the money will be distributed, is established and now it’s about figuring out who can provide the best experience for the consumer.

Q: What solutions does Broadcom provide to its partners?

A: Broadcom focuses on the NFC controller piece. Our expertise is in the connectivity. We’ve taken a very agnostic approach. We focus on standards-based secure element interfaces. Whether it’s SIM or embedded. It doesn’t matter to us. We focus on the connectivity and let the OEMs and the market decide what the right solution is. We support multiple solutions at the same time, too, so embedded or an NFC-enabled SIM card can exist in the same device. The idea being that what works in the U.S. may not work in Korea or Japan; so there’s choice.

Q: What kind of adoption rate are you seeing for NFC?

A: The adoption rate at the high end of the market is really only growing at this point and it’s pretty significant already. If we talk specifically about smartphones and the high end of the market, you’ve got Google with Android which is activating a million new devices a week. Now. That’s expected to grow. Then there’s RIM, which has basically enabled NFC across the entire product line and Microsoft’s Surface [and Windows Phone 8]. Nokia has always been a big proponent of NFC, too.

When we talk about adoption moving to the lower end of the market, in our conversations with stakeholders within the ecosystem, we are seeing significant interest as well. Their desire to see the technology move into all segments has a lot to do with  why getting the business model right was holding up NFC years ago. When more and more consumers use [NFC], the carriers, and the banks see more value out of it. Getting to that level of adoption means tighter technology integration, better cost structures and simpler design on the actual phone. The cost for the OEMs to add NFC to a phone is reduce, both in terms fo R&D and silicon need to be reduced.

Q: Will we see NFC for home automation, sort of the way Google’s @Home technology and the Nexus Q allow for it now?

A: The interesting thing about NFC is, in my opinion, is it has the potential to become viral. If you play with Android Beam, it’s pretty simple to use. It’s that straightforward. As people become more and more used to tapping things together and knowing what to do, I can’t see a case where they aren’t going to expect that. Like your thermostat programming at home, for example. If you could get to the point where you’re looking at a phone and you can set the temp and tap it to your thermostat and it’s programmed … that seems like a lot easier story then what we have to deal with today. As our world becomes more and more technologically advanced, there’s certainly a trend to figure out ways to democratize the tech so everyone can use it and use it more easily. I’m not pitching that NFC is the panacea that will bring it all together, but it’s a part of the solution that can help solve those problems.

Q: Is NFC an evolving standard like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi?

A: NFC today is a horizontal technology in that it’s designed to be a platform upon which vertical technologies can sort of leverage the underlying technical specifications to develop solutions that suit their markets. We’ve developed a platform so we can create an economy of scale that can be leveraged by lots of vertical industries. Now, we’re entering the phase where we are looking to partner with and drive adoption at a vertical level. Consumer electronics, advertising payments, transport, there’s lots of opportunities in these industries. The next phase is driving the adoption into each of these vertical markets.

Q: Is it cheap for OEMs to add NFC chips?

A: Today, obviously the cost is higher than it will be in a couple of years and that’s about people better understanding the technology. That’s where Broadcom comes into play. That’s sort of an area where we tend to help customers look at what we can do to actively design an atenna and a connectivity subsystem that includes NFC and takes everything into account for a finely tuned and optimized, lower cost platform. As the engineering effort advances, that cost is only going to come down, especially with combo chip integration and better RF performance.

Q: Is NFC a battery drain? We’ve heard it isn’t.

NFC tags and cards can actually perform in some cases without any battery at all, they harvest the energy they need form the field. There are reader modes which can consume more significant amounts of power. However, there are algorithms that Broad om has with low power detect, that can do creative things to sense the presence of a tag and only consume big bursts of power when it knows there’s a tag present. The net result is a very negligible drain on battery.

Wrap-Up

I learned a lot during my call with Awad, but if there’s anything I took away most it’s that NFC has a bright, bright future ahead in the mobile space. It’s already deployed globally for credit card payments and other uses, but we’re entering an entirely new era where we’ll be using our smartphones, tablets and more to connect with one another, with payment systems, with our home entertainment systems and, likely, devices we haven’t even thought of yet. Get ready to ditch the plug; it’s tap-and-go time.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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