What is NFC?

NFC is yet another acronym in the telecoms field

Exchanging data via NFC
Exchanging data via NFC
In this context, it stands for “Near Field Communication”. It is a set of standards (“agreed rules”, if you like) that allows devices such as smartphones to communicate with each at very close distances, or even if touching each other. The most obvious uses for this technology at this time are for the one-way or two-way exchange of data between devices (eg a contact’s name and address) and for the completion of transactions – in particular, financial ones.

NFC - Swiping a mobile phone
Swiping a mobile phone to make a payment
As well as communication between two powered devices, NFC also allows for communication between one powered device and an unpowered NFC chip. When communicating with an NFC chip (also known as a “tag”), the communication is one-way – ie data is read by the device from the tag.

We are starting to see NFC contactless payment systems appearing in shops that can communicate with smartphones, whereas these systems previously needed you to offer your credit/debit card to the reader to complete a transaction. As with debit/credit cards, you needn’t be worried, though, that your smartphone is going to erroneously pay for the latte of the person in front of you in the queue as NFC only works over very short distances – in practice the limit is about 4cm.

GoogleWalletLogoNow, if your smartphone can communicate with another NFC device it means that all of your card details (including loyalty cards and so forth) can be stored in one place on your phone. This is what Google Wallet promises to do, but at the moment it is limited to users in the USA.

Thinks: “what happens if I lose my smartphone?” Yes, that could be a big problem. Anyone who has access to the functions of your phone potentially has access to any card whose details are stored on it. You can, of course, ensure that entry to your phone is protected by a pin code and that only a limited number of attempts to enter that code are permitted. There is also a potential security problem of people “eavesdropping” on the transaction – ie electronically listening to the data being transmitted.

NFC Logo
One of several logos that can be found representing NFC
To some extent, I may be jumping the gun a bit by blogging about this subject as the phone carriers and software makers and financial people have not yet come to complete agreement about how NFC is going to be implemented. As mentioned above, Google Wallet currently only works in the USA. Over here, there are some schemes already up and running – such as Orange UK’s “Quick Tap Wallet”, but this seems to be restricted to Samsung phones. I managed to install the app onto my Sony smartphone but it says I need a “Quick Tap SIM card” and that I need to speak to them on 150. Until recently I thought that speaking with T-Mobile/Orange was becoming more bearable, but I lost half of my Saturday a few weeks ago when my text messaging stopped working and it took that long to sort it out. So, I don’t have the stamina to go through all that again just yet.

Sony Xperia NFC Tags
Is this the acme of nerdiness?
In the meantime, I’ve had a look at what can be done with NFC and reading tags. Sony sell “tags” that can be programmed so that when you touch the tag onto your phone a series of instructions are carried out on the phone (such as turning GPS on or off, muting the volume etc). The idea is that you set different tags to re-program your phone for different circumstances (driving, bedroom, office, etc). Because I can tell myself I need to know about these things, I can allow myself to be incredibly nerdy by buying a set of four of these Sony Xperia tags – (£6.59 inc p&p).

So, NFC is with us but it’s not exactly a “mature” technology yet. The reason I mention it today is that I keep seeing mobile phone specifications boasting about being “NFC enabled”. You won’t, by the way, see that on an iPhone specification just yet. It’s rumoured that the next generation of iPhones will be NFC enabled, but the iPhone 5 isn’t.

Does the average reader of this blog need an NFC phone and tags hanging around the place? Maybe, maybe not, but the next time you are in a mobile phone store and the teenage “sales associate” is trying to blind you with the technology, maybe you’ll remember what “NFC-enabled” is all about and whether it might be of any interest to you.

Incidentally, the introduction of NFC technology over the last year or so hasn’t been without problems. I’m sure I’m not alone in having the problem of my Oystercard not being read correctly on buses and tubes. The problem is caused by the machine getting confused with my smart debit card. The problem is solved by having the two cards in different sides of your wallet and only offering the relevant side for payment.

(Last updated 08/09/2023)