NFC, the technology that can help turn a mobile handset into an instant, superpower payment device, has been long on promise but largely short on delivery. But today, the France Telecom-owned mobile operator Orange took a step that could see some of that potential realized: it has announced that it will initiate a nationwide deployment of NFC SIM cards across its home market of France, covering 27 million subscribers. This will mean that any NFC-ready device with Orange’s new SIM in it can actually be used to make transactions — as long as a businesses has enabled the service.
The GSMA mobile carrier association first endorsed the NFC SIM solution back in November 2011 and this looks to be the first widescale European deployment of that — although there are other carriers, like China Mobile, who are already offering these elsewhere. Orange, meanwhile, has only been working on local pilots of NFC services up to now. We have reached out to Orange to ask whether it plans to extend this solution to the rest of its footprint, which includes mobile operations in the UK, Africa and other countries in Europe, 33 countries in all with 166 million mobile subscribers.
The task now for Orange will be to sell the solution on to third parties like banks, retailers and public transportation operators for them to implement the solutions at their end.
This will require investments not only for processing hardware at the point of sale/transaction but also software investments to create the apps that will exist on the SIM to be used with the service: Orange says each participating merchant or other partner will get secure “space” on the SIM for their individual services and to store private data — “as within a vault,” Orange says in its statement.
There will also need to be more NFC-ready handsets put out into the market for this to work: Orange has confirmed to me that these SIMs will only “speak” to NFC services if the devices in which they are sitting have NFC capabilities embedded in them. For now that rules out the iPhone, among others.
Some analysts are skeptical about whether all the pieces in play — from merchants through to handset makers and of course consumers — will be working together in a comprehensive way any time soon. A recent report from Gartner estimated that that the mobile payments market is currently worth $172 billion worldwide, but that NFC will play a marginal role in that for some time to come. Jupiter research is more optimistic: it believes that around 25 percent of all mobile users in the U.S. and Western Europe will use NFC on their devices by 2017.