Broadcom Building NFC Chips for Google Wallet-Type Services

Broadcom is building NFC chips using a 40-nanometer CMOS process to curb chip real estate and power consumption. Broadcom is seeking a piece of the market NXP and Samsung are leveraging.

Throw a rock and you'll find high-tech companies that are betting big on near-field communications (NFC), the wireless communication standard that enables short-range communications between machines with sensors.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), for example, has based its Google Wallet mobile payment service around NFC. The company is banking on NFC chips from semiconductor NXP to enable secure payment transactions from Android smartphones, with which users may tap and pay for goods at select retailers. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZW), AT&T (NYSE:T) and T-Mobile are developing their own mobile payment plans under the Isis coalition.

These players require the secure silicon to make their mobile payment services happen, and NXP and Samsung are among the leaders in NFC chip development.

Recognizing this green field, radio chip maker Broadcom (NASDAQ:BRCM) Sept. 26 said it is building NFC chips manufactured in 40-nanometer Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) to cut power consumption and provide a smaller form factor than chips from the current incumbents.

Craig Ochikubo, vice president and general manager at Broadcom, said the 40-nm CMOS process should cut power consumption by more than 90 percent, thus preserving precious battery life; use 40 percent fewer components; and result in a 40 percent smaller board area.

At a time when extra room on mobile devices is a luxury OEMs dream of, these specifications should make OEMs producing NFC-enabled smartphones, tablets and TVs lust after Broadcom's product.

"We learned our lesson with Bluetooth in the early days, when people turned their devices off because it just drained the battery," Ochikubo told eWEEK.

"NFC, for it to have any degree of utility, has to be on 100 percent of the time. It's just going to spend the majority of its time just listening to make some type of transaction, whether it's a data file transfer or making a payment. That's why we're really attacking this whole power consumption piece."

Moreover, Broadcom's NFC chips support field power harvesting, allowing the chip to draw energy from the environment so it can support transactions even if the phone battery is spent.

If there is one thing Google Wallet has been heavily criticized for, it's that it won't work when the phone battery dies; Google has switched off the field harvest capability for security reasons. Consumers can't pay for goods when their phones are out of juice and their wallets are stuffed in sock drawers at home.

Ochikubo added that the NFC controllers will work on any platform and support multiple secure elements or SIM cards, or even both at once. Broadcom plans to complement its NFC chips with its Maestro software, which will allow new NFC applications to access Bluetooth and WiFi capabilities in devices equipped with the chips.

Ochikubo said Broadcom is thinking beyond just tap-and-pay smartphone services. He expects Broadcom NFC chips in smartphones to allow consumers to access and control WiFi-powered home entertainment systems or Bluetooth headsets simply by waving their handsets near the device's NFC sensor.

Time will tell if consumers crave these solutions, but there's little question most industry watchers expect NFC-enabled mobile payments and other transactions to skyrocket in the next five years.

Broadcom expects to mass produce its NFC chips, which OEMs are testing, in mid-2012.