Singapore Telco and Service Providers Trial Flex-Antenna Device

Singaporean mobile operator StarHub, DBS Bank and transit fare-collection and payments company EZ-Link plan to launch a mobile-payment trial next month enabling users to tap to pay using devices with flexible antennas linked to SIM cards.

Details of the trial, announced today by France-based Gemalto, supplier of the SIM overlay and antenna product, show it will involve about 1,000 customers of the bank and StarHub, enabling them to tap their phones to pay at more than 1,000 merchant acceptance points for MasterCard PayPass, as well as more than 10,000 terminals that accept the ez-link card, including taxis. Users also can tap to pay fares on buses and trains taking ez-link. MasterCard Worldwide had announced the planned trial last May.

The devices, considered an NFC bridge technology, use a SIM overlay chip, which supports NFC and the single-wire protocol standard. The overlay makes contact with the SIM and enables users to view application data on their handset screens. Users will be required to have StarHub install the devices, which Gemalto calls Upteq N-Flex. Agents will insert the SIM overlays and program users’ SIMs and wrap the flexible antennas around or on top of the phone batteries for the eight-month trial.

Despite what appears to be full NFC chips in N-Flex, the trial in Singapore seems likely to work only in card-emulation mode, that is, similar to contactless bank or transit cards. And it’s unclear how many PayPass terminals there are in Singapore to accept the bank's payment application. MasterCard doesn’t release breakdowns for PayPass cards or points of acceptance for individual countries. EZ-Link, while starting only as an e-purse for transit fare collection, does have an aggressive program to expand retail acceptance for its closed-loop purse.

Some Flex-Antenna Problems
SIM or SIM overlay products with flexible antennas like N-Flex work with most but not all phones. Phones with metal cases and unusual configurations of SIM slots create problems. The metal blocks or distorts the radio waves carrying transaction data. Even with plastic cases, read ranges are often less than with contactless cards.

In addition, vendors need to offer products with the antennas positioned in three or four different configurations so that the products will fit into phones regardless of the position of the SIM slots. But this can create logistical headaches. And the products–with their often unwieldy antenna tails–are sometimes difficult for consumers or even agents to install. Moreover, such phones as the iPhone, with special SIM slots and little extra room underneath the back cover, require users to attach the antennas outside of the phones.

Still, despite the drawbacks, mobile operators and service providers in some other places also are testing or even rolling out SIM or SIM overlays with flexible antennas. Other m-commerce players are planning to use other so-called NFC bridge technologies, such as contactless microSD cards. Most of the telcos and service providers are waiting for full NFC phones to hit the market, though some observers believe these alternative products will continue to be issued even if NFC phones become widely available.

Among the other flex-antenna projects that have reportedly launched is one in Turkey, with operator Avea and Garanti bank, which also is using a MasterCard PayPass application on Gemalto’s N-Flex product.

Projects Elsewhere in Asia
In China, No. 3 mobile operator China Telecom has been rolling out dual-interface SIMs with flexible antennas, or in some cases antennas built into specially equipped phones, in Nanjing and about 10 other cities in Jiangsu province, as well as some other cities in China. The country’s two larger mobile operators, China Mobile and China Unicom, have also experimented with the technology, SIMpass, from China-based vendor Watchdata, but are expected to try to develop mobile payment on full NFC phones. Watchdata said that by next month, it will have shipped 2 million SIMpass cards over the years, mainly in China.

Earlier this month in Taipei, Taiwan, payment service provider EasyCard Corp. launched a trial with a planned 1,000 participants, using a SIM-overlay product from Taiwan-based Taisys Technologies. The device, called duoPass, carries Taipei’s popular EasyCard transit application onboard the overlay chip, which is connected to a flexible antenna.

The film overlay makes contact with the users’ SIM card chips to communicate with the handset. Participants in the government-subsidized trial can tap their phones to ride buses and subway trains in Taipei as well as make purchases in more than 4,000 7-Eleven convenience stories and at least 5,000 to 6,000 other retail outlets that accept the EasyCard transit e-purse in Taiwan. Users also can view their balances, last six transactions and amount of their last top-ups, along with their bicycle-rental record.

They cannot, however, top up their EasyCard purses over the mobile network because of delays by the Taiwanese government in approving over-the-air downloading of value or payment applications.

Still, the 1,000 units, priced at a cheap NT$100 (US$3.29), sold out quickly in Taipei earlier this month, though the devices usually required EasyCard agents several minutes each to install. One consumer waiting in line at the Taipei Main Station for an agent to install the flex-antenna device in his BlackBerry said the product was worth having, despite the lack of top-up capability. 

"Maybe you forget to bring the card, but you never forget to bring your cell phone," Arthur Chung, an architect, told NFC Times.

Taisys CEO Jason Ho said that unlike most of the other contactless products with flex antennas, duoPass doesn’t require users to change their SIM cards.

"Cards can be issued by banks, financial institutions, membership issuers, transit operators," he said.

A representative from EasyCard Corp., who was attending the mid-November installation event, told NFC Times that the fact the product could be used with any telco is important. "We can’t ask the client to switch to Chunghwa Telecom to use this service," he said, referring to Taiwan’s largest mobile operator.

U.S.-based Ambiq Technology also has launched a trial in St. Petersburg, Russia, using a similar product, one that also doesn’t require users to be subscribers of a particular mobile operator.

Bank St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg transportation committee are participating in the pilot, which launched earlier this fall with about 500 participants, using a SIM overlay and flexible antenna product from Czech Republic-based Bladox. Users could tap to pay on the St. Petersburg Metro. Plans called for the bank also to enable consumers to top up their transit purses over the mobile network.

Back in Singapore, while the Gemalto press release concludes by saying the m-payment service is scheduled to be launched "to the masses" in the latter half of 2011, the Singaporean government is unlikely to support such a project if the service is not interoperable among various mobile operators and service providers.

The government, which is taking a hands-on approach to the rollout of NFC services in the small island nation-state, earlier this month released its "call for collaboration" seeking tenders to choose a sort of national trusted service manager to download and manage payment and other applications on NFC phones and possibly other devices.

The government agency, the Infocomm Development Authority, or IDA, will probably not mandate that Singaporean telcos and service providers use the TSM, but it will be highly recommended. The IDA said it wants to promote interoperability of NFC services. The authority is also expected to offer funding to the TSM it chooses. It hopes to see NFC commercial services rolling out on the island by the first quarter of 2012.

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