Inside Secure has finally announced the NFC SIM technology demonstrated a year ago, potentially adding ticketing and payments to any mobile phone, only without the other cool stuff NFC can do.
The technology uses an RF booster, branded The PicoPulse, which uses handset power to push the Near Field Communications radio signal through the battery which normally sits atop the SIM, but it does allow even the cheapest mobile phone to take part in the pay-by-bonk revolution, assuming network operators agree it's worth the expense.
Near Field Communications comprises three components, only two of which Inside Secure has managed to get working in a standard-sized SIM. The secure element, where tickets and currency are stored, and the radio antenna both fit (the antenna being 5x10mm), but there's no space for an induction loop which would draw power from the reader if the handset battery were dead. This can be used to induce power in passive cards by most NFC handsets.
There just isn't room on the SIM for that kind of thing, though to be fair the applications for it are still very limited. Handsets with proper induction coils can read smart posters, inducing current in a tag stuck to a poster in order to read a URL, but the business model for such tags is thoroughly vague and Inside Secure is betting that network operators won't care.
The usual way to get round that problem is to use an antenna built into the handset, wired to the SIM (which remains the home of the secure element) using the Single Wire Protocol (SWP). Almost all the NFC handsets on the market today support the SWP, though some also have their own secure element too. But there are alternatives, including special batteries and antennas which wrap around the battery (generally connected to the SIM, though SmartSim makes one which passively echoes the signal around the battery).
SIMs have become a very commodity item, and Inside Secure obviously wants to sell functionality, but network operators are traditionally reluctant to put things in the SIM given the volumes involved - add fifty pence to the cost of an O2 SIM and you've spent ten million quid, as one engineer reminded your correspondent. When it comes to an NFC SIM, Inside Secure is racing against smartphone manufacturers who are already embedding NFC antennas and rendering its new technology obsolete - with the only notable exception being Apple. And Apple's use of nano SIMs precludes even Inside's diminutive technology.
Apple aside, NFC is now a standard feature of most new smartphones: if pay-by-bonk achieves any success then it will soon be standard on feature phones all phones soon after, leaving Inside Secure with a narrow window of opportunity. If, on the other hand, pay by bonk doesn't take off then the entire subject will be moot. ®