Qualcomm launches NFC controller chip

Advantages of the QCA1990 include support for smaller and cheaper NFC antennas, ultra-low power consumption, a small footprint and integration with a wide range of mobile phone processors, Qualcomm’s Neeraj Bhatia has told NFC World.

Qualcomm Atheros
QUALCOMM: QCA1990 NFC controller will be available in volume from mid-2013

Qualcomm Atheros, the chip giant’s wireless connectivity division, has unveiled the QCA1990, an NFC controller chip that works with the company’s full range of mobile phone processors.

Key features of the new chip include:

  • Small footprint — “The QCA1990 is the industry’s smallest, ultra-low power system-on-chip (SoC) with an overall footprint that is 50 percent smaller than current NFC chips available in the market,” says Qualcomm.
  • Support for smaller and cheaper NFC antenna form factors, enabling device makers to use both current generation antennas and newer designs that are up to eight times smaller than current antennas and avoid the need to use expensive ferrite shielding.
  • Platform level integration “across the board” with Qualcomm’s full range of mobile phone processors, from the Snapdragon S4 and the company’s next generation of processors and modems to mid- and low-end chipsets, as well as tight integration with the company’s WCN3680 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and FM radio combo chip.
  • Ultra-low power consumption. Qualcomm has implemented a proprietary polling mechanism that lowers the average current consumed and prolongs battery life.
  • Wide choice of secure elements. Multiple types of secure elements can be supported, including NFC SIMs, dual SIMs, embedded secure elements, microSD and cloud-based SEs. Up to two secure elements can be active at the any time.
  • A QCA1990 software stack that complies with the recently released NFC Forum Controller Interface (NCI) standard.
  • RF performance that exceeds the requirements of both EMVCo and the NFC Forum.
  • The chip comes pre-tested “to meet the requirements from payment schemes, mobile operators and OEMs globally”.
  • As well as mobile phones, the QCA1990 can also be used with PCs, tablets and a wide range of consumer electronics devices.

The size of current generation NFC controller chips “is one of the key things OEMs have been struggling with,” Neeraj Bhatia, Qualcomm Atheros’ product manager for NFC and a board member of the NFC Forum, has told NFC World. “Size is always a crucial factor on the mobile platform. Real estate comes at a premium”.

The size of current antennas and the requirement to include ferrite shielding have also been barriers that the new Qualcomm chip should help to remove, he added. The QCA1990’s support for much smaller antennas will mean that a ferrite sheet, which costs “tens of cents” per device, will no longer be required. This will really help OEMs bring NFC into mid- and low-range phones, he explained, adding that “even in the high end it’s a factor”.

Rather than partnering with one or two secure element makers, Qualcomm has taken the decision to support as wide a range of secure elements as possible. “These SE suppliers have some strengths and weaknesses,” Bhatia explained, so Qualcomm customers will have “complete flexibility as to which SE they want to use as we pre-integrate with all suppliers.”

Qualcomm will begin sampling the QCA1990 in the first quarter of 2013 and the chip will enter volume production during the second half of 2013. “We’re already talking to OEMs,” says Bhatia, and the company is seeing “pretty strong demand and interest in sampling at this point. I think we’re going to have our hands full.”

Exact pricing is not being revealed at this time but, Bhatia says, “we’ll make sure we’re very competitive or even the best.”

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