New Broadcom chips signal next stage of the mobile wallet wars

The company’s new NFC controller chips allow multiple secure elements to be active on a single phone at the same time, making it possible for consumers to use both a mobile wallet supplied by a mobile network operator and a mobile wallet supplied by a bank, handset maker or operating system supplier.

BROADCOM: New NFC controller chips throw the mobile wallet race wide open

Wireless connectivity IC giant Broadcom has launched the first NFC controller chips able to handle multiple active secure elements, making it possible for multiple mobile wallets from a variety of NFC service providers to all be used together on one mobile phone.

The new Broadcom BCM2079x family of NFC controllers is capable of supporting three types of secure element:

  • SIM-based secure elements, of the type mobile network operators are set to deploy.
  • Embedded secure elements, of the type used by Google Wallet and expected to be used in future NFC-enabled iPhones and other Apple devices.
  • MicroSD format secure elements, of the type that has been extensively tested by Visa and a number of US and international banks.

Any two secure elements can be supported at the same time by the new chips, in any combination, Dino Bekis, senior director of Broadcom’s wireless PAN division, explained to NFC World. An NFC phone containing one of the Broadcom chips can therefore support both a SIM-based secure element and an embedded secure element, a SIM and a microSD device, an embedded secure element and a microSD device or even two embedded secure elements.

NFC phones containing the new Broadcom chips will therefore be able to run mobile wallet services provided by both Google Wallet and Isis, for example, or by both Visa and — potentially — Apple.

“A user could use services provided by the carrier at the same time as they leverage services that the phone manufacturer has provided or the user has downloaded or installed,” Bekis told NFC World.

“We believe this opens up a wealth of opportunities for NFC,” he adds. “By offering a very flexible system architecture, it allows for a variety of business models to be supported at the same time, reduces the proliferation of [handset] models from the OEMs to support multiple carriers throughout the world, and simplifies the user experience.

“We are the first and only company who can support multiple secure elements simultaneously,” Bekis confirmed. “Others can claim to support different secure element interfaces, but they can only support one secure element at a time.”

The new Broadcom chips include two technical developments that make this possible:

  • Transaction-based Application ID (AID) routing. This allows simultaneous support of multiple secure elements (both SIM and non-SIM) within a single device.
  • Multiple SWP (single wire protocol) interfaces. This allows for standards-based SIM and embedded secure element integration.

The new chips also incorporate a number of additional technical developments including:

  • Reduced power consumption via “low power target detection mode”, which reduces polling power consumption by more than 90%, and support for “field power harvesting”, which allows the chip to draw energy from the environment so it can support transactions even if the phone battery has expired.
  • Reduced board space requirements and design complexity. The new chips are manufactured in 40nm CMOS technology, reducing the board size of the chips by 40%, and use 40% fewer components.

The chips are also designed to pair easily with Broadcom’s InConcert BCM4330 Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and FM combo chip to provide a “comprehensive connectivity solution” and are provided with the company’s Maestro software stack “for reduced design complexity, creative connectivity options and faster time to market.”

“Broadcom is committed to making NFC as ubiquitous as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are today,” says Craig Ochikubo, VP and general manager of Broadcom’s wireless personal area networks division. “These solutions provide the features and performance that enable disruptive innovation that will reshape the mobile consumer experience.”

The new chips are Broadcom’s second major NFC announcement since its acquisition of UK-based NFC chip specialist Innovision for US$47.5m in June 2010. The company also announced in June 2011 a system-on-a-chip (SoC) secure application processor that includes built-in NFC capability.

The chips will start shipping in mid-2012.

NFC World’s take:

The arrival of the new Broadcom chips signals a step change in the development of the NFC industry and will have a fundamental impact on the business models employed by mobile network operators, handset makers, operating system suppliers and others working to bring NFC to market.

Before now, only one secure element and, therefore, only one mobile wallet could be active on an NFC device at any one time. That meant an NFC phone could either support, for example, an Isis mobile wallet or a Google Wallet — but not both.

Standards bodies have been looking at ways to implement support for multiple secure elements, but this work was expected to be at least a year away from completion. Broadcom’s announcement means that handset manufacturers who choose the new chips can now begin building devices that allow all sides in the mobile wallet wars to include a secure element on an NFC phone.

On one level, this means that the mobile wallet wars could be over almost before they have begun. On another, however, it is likely to mean that they have only just got started. It’s one thing to have the capability to provide secure NFC services on a mobile phone — but the fight is still on to persuade banks, retailers, transport companies and others to pick one mobile wallet provider over another.

And the Broadcom chips come with one more twist. As well as SIM-based and embedded secure elements, they also provide support for external secure elements. That means there won’t just be space for the mobile network operators and the handset/operating system suppliers on an NFC phone. It will also be possible for the major payments networks such as Visa and MasterCard — or other new entrants — to integrate their own secure elements into NFC phones, turning the carriers-versus-banks-versus-handsets mobile wallet war into a wide open race.

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