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Qualcomm Takes Seat on Board of NFC Forum as Major Chip Makers Push Forward on NFC

U.S.-based Qualcomm has joined the NFC Forum as a sponsor member, which gives it a seat on the board of the standards and trade organization.

Qualcomm, the largest supplier of processors globally for smartphones, had been a principal member of the association, and its intention to introduce NFC technology has been known in the industry for some time. But upgrading its status to the forum board adds more confirmation it will push forward with the technology soon.

The chip supplier is expected to introduce NFC by next year, which could mean greater deployment of NFC in both high-end and low-end smartphones, the latter a market it is increasingly targeting. Qualcomm originally announced a move into NFC technology in early 2011, well before it was ready to launch.

Qualcomm joins such other processor chip heavyweights Intel and Broadcom on the 13 member forum board. In addition, Taiwan-based MediaTek, another major processor supplier, is an associate member of the forum and has recently introduced an NFC chip for low-cost Android phones through MStar Semiconductor, of which MediaTek is acquiring a major stake.

The interest of the major smartphone processor suppliers will help spread NFC technology widely, including into such emerging smartphone markets as China, said observers. The chip makers will either incorporate NFC into their combination wireless chips or offer the technology as a standalone NFC chip–at least to begin with. Both U.S.-based Broadcom and MediaTek have offered standalone chips so far.

As NFC Times reported Nov. 14, Broadcom is supplying NFC chips for Google’s Nexus 4 smartphone and Nexus 10 tablet, along with the NFC software that integrates with Google’s Android 4.2 operating system. MediaTek already provides NFC for at least a couple of low-cost Android phones from Chinese handset makers K-Touch and Hedy that have either launched or will be introduced soon in China, NFC Times has learned. It plans to supply more handsets with NFC next year.

Meanwhile, China-based handset makers ZTE and Lenovo, among a few others, have said they would use Intel’s NFC-enabled reference device, not necessarily for the Chinese market.

“It’s a leading indicator for the NFC market: The technology is going to become a checklist item in smartphones in the near future–with or without Apple,” one analyst told NFC Times.

The NFC Forum today also announced that U.S.-based Kovio, which designs and manufactures printed silicon products for RFID tags and what it calls “NFC barcodes” upgraded its status from associate to principal member, one rung below the board level.

Device makers, Lenovo and Taiwan-based Acer also have joined the forum, as associate members, which is one level below principal. China’s large payment network, China UnionPay, also joined as an associate member, as did Canadian mobile operator Bell Mobility. All told, the forum announced 22 new associate, implementer and nonprofit members, in addition to Qualcomm and Kovio.

Broadcom, a major supplier of combo wireless chips, supporting such technologies as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, to smartphone makers, is expected to later incorporate its NFC technology into these chips. U.S.-based Texas Instruments, which recently announced it would quit the mobile processor business, has already introduced combo wireless chips with NFC.

Texas Instruments is a principal member of the NFC Forum. Both sponsor and principal members can appoint voting members to the forum’s various committees and working groups, where standards and policies are hashed out. For example, the latest specification the forum issued, the NFC Controller Interface, or NCI, standardizes the connection between the NFC chip and the application processor within devices.

Sponsor and principal members also can propose forum initiatives and participate in the group’s testing and certification programs using in-house labs.

Their membership in the forum at the sponsor or principal level signals that the organizations have significant plans for NFC technology.

Chip-Heavy Board
But the forum is believed to be very much a board-driven organization, and some observers have pointed out that the board has been dominated by chip suppliers.

That would be even more the case now, with the addition of Qualcomm and decisions by Japanese telco NTT DoCoMo, UK-based issuer and acquirer Barclaycard and Microsoft to drop their seats on the board within the past year. Barclaycard had upgraded its status to board member only last year.

At present, 10 of the 13 board positions are held by either chip suppliers or, in the case of NEC, a former chip supplier. Meanwhile, of nearly 180 organizations across all membership levels, the forum counts only eight mobile operators as members.

Besides Qualcomm, Broadcom, Intel and NEC, the board includes NXP Semiconductors, a co-founder of the group and co-creator of NFC technology. NXP is the largest supplier of NFC chips worldwide and had supplied all Android devices leading up to the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 with NFC technology.

Inside Secure, the supplier of NFC technology to Research in Motion, is also a board member, along with STMicroelectronics, which is supplying the embedded secure elements that work with the Broadcom NFC modem chips in the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10. ST also has its own NFC microcontroller chip.

The board includes other companies that make processors, such as Samsung Electronics and Renesas Electronics, but their membership mainly stems from their background in microcontrollers and smart card chips and, in the case of Samsung, as a mobile device maker.

Samsung Semiconductor has supplied NFC chips for at least one phone, the Samsung bada-based Wave Y. Renesas offers an NFC chip as part of a wireless charging system for smartphones it introduced in September.

Sony, with NXP the co-creator of NFC technology, rounds out the board members with a chip background.

Sony, NXP and Nokia co-founded the forum in 2004 and Nokia remains one of the three members of the board, along with Visa Inc. and MasterCard Worldwide, without a chip connection. Nokia, Visa and MasterCard have exercised strong voices on the board in the past.

According to NFC Forum director Debbie Arnold, chip makers on the board do not try to work together as a block to bend forum policy in a certain direction.

“When you look at the totality of the NFC Forum membership, it is an increasingly diverse, increasingly global organization,” NFC Forum director Debbie Arnold told NFC Times in a statement when asked about the preponderance of chip makers on the board. “Each member company has its own business interests and many of them compete with each other, so there is little likelihood that any group of industry members would or could ‘control’ the forum. More likely, the representation of chip makers among our members is indicative of the importance of NFC to their businesses, particularly at this stage in the evolution of the NFC market.”

Scarcity of Mobile Operators
When also asked about the scarce representation in the forum by mobile operators, which is one of the main driving forces for NFC rollouts worldwide, Arnold pointed to telco members AT&T, along with the Isis joint venture of which it is a part, as well as Canadian telcos Rogers Communications and Bell Mobility, China Mobile, Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom Laboratories, NTT DoCoMo and U.S.-based Sprint.

All but AT&T, DoCoMo and Rogers are below the principal level, however. And European telcos, which are gearing up for major NFC rollouts in 2013, are absent altogether. UK-based Vodafone Group and France Telecom-Orange had earlier been members of the forum, but dropped out.

Most telcos are pushing a SIM-centric approach to the rollout of secure NFC services and have mainly focused their work on international standards at the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, or ETSI, over which they hold sway. The NFC Forum is seen as more secure element-neutral.

The operators also work through their major trade group, the GSM Association, which has an active NFC program in place and which is also pushing SIM cards as the primary secure element in NFC phones.

The forum has a more than three-year old memo of understanding with ETSI to “align” activities. The forum also has a liaison agreement with the GSMA.

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