Petite Controversy Surrounds Phone for French Project
The stakes are high for France’s planned launch of Near Field Communication services in the city of Nice this spring.
French operators intend to put the range of NFC services on display in the demonstration project to showcase the technology in France and beyond, in what they hope will lead to NFC rollouts nationwide by 2011. They stress the project is much more than a trial.
With so much riding on the project, no wonder the two major suppliers of NFC chips for mobile phones on the world market, NXP Semiconductors and Inside Contactless, have been fighting hard to get their silicon into the premier phone operators will sell, the Samsung S5230, Player One.
The selection of the phone has also raised some eyebrows because it doesn’t support 3G technology, but slower EDGE network speeds.
Sans French Chip
Samsung late last summer chose an NFC chip made by NXP for what is likely to become the handset maker’s first commercially available NFC phone, the Player One, also known in some countries as the Samsung Star or Ely.
But such a high-profile project not packing a chip from a French supplier, Inside, has also made a few waves. NXP is based in the Netherlands and its NFC and contactless unit hails from Austria, though it has a research and development facility in Caen, France.
According to some sources, Samsung changed the chip to Inside’s MicroRead, based on lobbying from Inside and perhaps even pressure from the French government, which is strongly backing the project. Others say the government only inquired about the chip and didn’t try to change the vendor.
Samsung isn’t talking about the NFC chip it will use in the phone. But what is clear is that by December, Samsung’s preferred phone for the Nice project, the Player One, was sporting the NXP chip, and the handset maker was unlikely to replace it so close to the project launch, expected in April or May. Like Inside’s MicroRead chip, the NXP PN544 supports the standard single-wire protocol connection to the SIM in the phone, enabling payment, ticketing and other secure applications to be stored on the SIM.
A spokesman for the French mobile operator group helping to coordinate the project, Association Française du Sans Contact Mobile, Bruno Prexl, who is also m-payment marketing manager at French telco Bouygues Telecom, said mobile operators are trying to avoid getting involved in the fray.
“Samsung asked us if we have any comment,” Prexl told NFC Times, “(All we said is) we want the phone compliant with the (NFC) specification at the right price and delivered on time.”
Not Quite 3G
But Samsung’s choice of the handset itself is also a little controversial. The non-NFC version of the Player One is one of Samsung’s hottest sellers in France. It offers a stylish touch screen at a reasonable price. But it’s not a 3G phone.
That means downloading data will be slower, including NFC applications users request over the air, payment or ticketing transaction data sent to the phones, or coupons and tourist information they get over the network by tapping the phones on RFID chips embedded in smart posters.
“We expected a 3G phone; all MNOs (mobile network operators) prefer a 3G product," Olivier Deuffic, senior marketing manager for business development of innovative products for France’s No. 2 operator SFR, told NFC Times. “We are using a lot of data connections on behalf of NFC services, so for that, we need no delay. With 2G, even with an EDGE product, it doesn’t give the same user experience.”
But EDGE, sometimes called 2.75G, is almost as fast as 3G, note other project backers. And it’s more important that the phone is affordable and stylish than just fast, they say. While 3G smartphones are popular in France as they are in other Western markets, students or “the lady doing the shopping” wouldn’t necessarily buy an NFC smartphone in Nice, even if a smartphone model were available, said Laurent Jullien, director of contactless and payment services at Bouygues.
“We need a normal phone and a relatively cheap one just to make sure it’s rapidly adopted,” he said.
France’s major mobile network operators have promised to order at least 3,300 phones but will likely request many more for the Nice project.
Samsung had planned to offer up a 3G model, nicknamed the “Gin Tonic,” for Nice, say sources. The South Korean-based handset maker was working with Inside’s NFC chip for this phone. And Samsung’s venture capital arm invested in Inside in 2008.
But Samsung inexplicably switched to the Player One for the project. The Gin Tonic was not a touch screen model.
The Player One won’t be the only NFC phone the French mobile operators put on sale in their shops in Nice, however. Sources said at least one more model, nicknamed the “Cozy,” from French mid-tier phone maker Sagem, is on tap for the project. This phone will likely go on sale later than the Player One and probably won’t be as popular.
But the Sagem phone would give Inside Contactless a chance to get back into the project, since it's the only NFC chip maker Sagem is working with, sources said. Inside is also providing technology for smart-poster applications planned for Nice.
“We’ll be in Nice in any case. That’s the truth,” said Loic Hamon, vice president for NFC marketing at Inside. NT