Singapore to start NFC trials

Mobile operators link up with payment vendors to launch trials on near-field communication services, including mobile phone wallets.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The country's two largest mobile service providers will soon kickstart wireless payment trials, aimed at allowing mobile phones to be used to pay for goods and services.

Both trials will be based on near-field communication (NFC), a short-range wireless connectivity technology commonly deployed in a chip and embedded in handsets such as mobile phones. Mobile users can make payment at stores by tapping their NFC-enabled phones on readers.

SingTel and Network for Electronic Transfers of Singapore (Nets) today announced plans to trial their NFC service internally over three months until the end of 2007, before initiating a six-month public trial next year.

SingTel and Nets' service will allow users to top up the stored cash value in their mobile phone over-the-air (OTA), via the phone network, using credit cards. Right now, only credit cards from DBS Bank, OCBC and UOB--the three participating banks roped in for the trial--can be used.

About 1,000 merchants will be participating in the trial, said executives from SingTel and Nets, during the launch today. Retailers will also be able to embed NFC chips in items such as posters, allowing consumers to tap on the poster using their NFC-enabled phone to download contact details or marketing material such as e-coupons and URL links into their phone.

SingTel Mobile CEO, Quek Peck Leng, said the company is exploring ways to integrate the NFC chip with other forms of personalized applications, such as loyalty or membership cards.

A total of 50 staff from SingTel and Nets will be involved in the internal trial, while the subsequent public trial will rope in over 200 subscribers. After the completion of both pilots, Quek explained that further tweaking and finetuning will be done before SingTel makes the NFC service available for commercial use.

He added that Nokia 6131 is currently the only commercially-available phone model that comes with NFC capabilities, but noted that SingTel is working with other handset makers such as Samsung and Sony Ericsson, to drive the introduction of more NFC-enabled phones in Singapore.

SingTel's rival StarHub, has partnered with another wireless payment vendor, EZ-Link, to begin trials of a similar service, but a StarHub spokesperson could not provide details regarding length of its trial period. He did say, however, that the trial will commence by the end of the year.

The spokesperson also told ZDNet Asia that only one phone model, but could not say which, will be used in the trial.

StarHub is expected to tap on EZ-Link's network of over 20,000 terminals, the bulk of which can be found at Singapore's public transportation locations such as in buses and at train stations, and in some fast food outlets. EZ-Link issues the ez-link card, a contactless payment card widely used by commuters as payment for bus and train rides.

According to Nets CEO Poh Mui Hoon, the company operates about 1,200 contactless terminals islandwide, a number that is targeted to increase to 2,000 by the end of the year.

Singapore's third mobile service provider MobileOne, may also be looking to embark on a similar project in future. When contacted, a spokesperson told ZDNet Asia that the company is "evaluating a virtual payment solution", but was unable to provide further detail.

In another part of Asia, Taiwan started trials for a mobile phone payment platform in February this year, in a tie-up between Taiwan Mobile, MasterCard and Taiwan Fubon Bank.

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