Is NFC Too Slow?

A key value proposition of NFC-enabled phones for consumers is speed. No need to search your wallet or purse for the right card; just wave that ubiquitous phone by the reader and pass on by. NFC payments will certainly be quick, but I doubt they'll be much quicker than today's magstripe and smart cards. Does it really matter whether I swipe, dip, or tap my card? So why should anyone care about NFC?

I believe the value comes when NFC is used for multiple purposes in the same transaction. The real time-saver lies in replacing the need for my loyalty card, coupons, and payment card with a single tap of the phone. But is this really achievable?

During our experiments with NFC, we found it to be too time consuming to open each of three files to read the contents representing loyalty, coupons, and payment. It took roughly two seconds per file, which doesn't sound slow, but it moves the consumer from a "tap" to a "tap and hold."

NFC Visa.jpg
To avoid this issue, we combined the data from all three files into a single one, using separators between the data types. This works well, enabling the consumer to simply tap to handle the combined data exchange with POS. But realistically, the data is owned by three different organizations, and they will want their own files.

So far we've just talked about reading data. Writing data takes a big longer, and moving the phone away from the reader during a write operations will cause an error. When a coupon is redeemed, we may want to erase it, or add a new one during checkout. This extends the time even longer.

The fastest approach might be to simply store a read-only unique identified on the phone that a third party can link to a loyalty number, list of coupons, and payment choices on some far away server. Forcing all the work to the back-end servers would certainly simplify the role of NFC but also require the POS to be online.

I'm no NFC expert, so I'd love to hear from one that can explain how we're going to deliver on the promise of speed.


hi David

I did not get the line "Forcing all the work to the back-end servers would certainly simplify the role of NFC but also require the POS to be online"

If NFC is going to be used for payments, does that not by default imply that the POS is online? So why not push the processing of all three to the back-end servers then?

Also, using NFC to write back to the mobile device may expose a security risk. I feel a read-only Id on the device is the way forward.

Posted by Shankar on April 12, 2011 at 11:58 AM PDT #

Hi David,

Really interesting study. Done a quick write up for NFC World which will go out in a couple of days. Would be great to chat to you and ask for some more details about your study.

Any chance you can get in touch via the email above?

All the best,
Christopher Brown

Posted by Christopher Brown on April 13, 2011 at 12:21 AM PDT #

For those parts of the world that have Chip and PIN payment, then NFC (even 2 seconds per file for several files) will usually be quicker.


Assuming the NFC enabled payment card use case. The standard mode of operation is that a NFC wave will NOT usually* require entry of the PIN if the transaction is below a value threshold. So thats quicker by default.

Chip & PIN generally forces the merchant to require a PIN for every transaction--unlike many US implementations of swipe which allow signature to be bypassed for lower value transactions (swipe and go).

* As a security measure, every 3-5 waves a PIN will be demanded, unless the card is a "stored value" card or maybe stored-value NFC on a phone. Example: London "Oyster" transit card which is in the process of being enabled as a low-value, stored value card in time for the Olympics

Posted by Miles Thomas on April 13, 2011 at 09:58 AM PDT #

Christopher, I wouldn't call our work "a study" -- it was more of a proof-of-concept. I'll contact you via email.

Posted by David on April 14, 2011 at 11:59 PM PDT #

NFC has three modes. I guess from the above description the write and read modes were used. I would be surprised if you would have access to the secure element. Likely we can expect that payment will have similar performance as contactless cards have now.

Posted by lexdabear on April 18, 2011 at 06:58 AM PDT #

We have linked the nfc transit card in Singapore, ezlink, to Facebook to turn the card into a Facebook Page Fan Recognition solution for brands to offer FANtastic discounts and/or loyalty points.

We found that it is faster to read the id card number on this nfc transit card number and do the necessary loyalty points offering at the backend.

Fan recognition takes only seconds to execute. If we were to write data onto the card, it would have taken minutes. When you put in money into the card, the machines often takes a minute or two before it allows you to take the card off the reader.

Posted by Aaron Koh on April 19, 2011 at 03:18 AM PDT #

I worked on passive RF for years. The biggest problem with speed isn't the NFC, which is faster than older passive standards, but crappy middleware and crappy, message-based middleware protocols. The comm lag between the reader and the thing that is issuing commands and processing the data is the biggest source of slow performance. Taking NFC to 1Gbps (which isn't actually possible) isn't going to solve the performance issue.

Consider these facts:
1. So many serial lines between POS and POP terminal still run at 9600 bps.
2. So many messaging protocols require full circuits, all the way to the database, for even the most mundane commands.

So, fix your wire and develop a batch protocol.

Posted by JP Norair on April 19, 2011 at 01:35 PM PDT #

David, i think your exercise is interesting and a point that needs to be addressed but speed is not claimed as the defining benefit of NFC and the widespread reporting of your study as "Oracle says NFC is found lagging" sweeps away all the other benefits of NFC. The fact that a secure, convenient and flexible system is "only" the same speed as an insecure, inflexible one doesn't seem (to me) to be grounds for the way your study was reported elsewhere. I realise that being mis-reported is not under your control but I do think your comparison of technologies on speed alone misses the point of NFC and virtual damns it for a claim that I'm not aware that NFC makes.

Your article is a comparison of contact payment with contactless. I believe that the use of NFC is irrelevant in the exercise that you undertook.

What's the difference between existing card payments and NFC?

NFC is on a permanently connected device thus allowing loading of value, resetting of counters, amendment of risk parameters, loading of additional applications, etc etc, anytime anywhere as a push or a pull transaction. For the consumer it offers 24x7 connectivity, multiple application functionality and other benefits such as balance display after a prepaid transaction etc.

Other interaction given the screen and keyboard will leave card based payments looking inflexible and prehistoric within a few years. A year or two ago one might have asked why I should want a calculator function on my phone when I can just as easily carry a pocket calculator...? (or choose any other app/function on your phone and compare it with it's non-phone predecessor). In fact I'm sure there are better examples since the calculator is just a duplication of existing functionality in a different device, it doesn't use the screen, keyboard and connectivity to extend the benefits as NFC does in the payment world. Neither of my 20 something kids wear watches because it seems ridiculous to them when they have the time on their phone, it provides synchronised alarms, automatically adjusts for daylight saving and for time zones when travelling. Sure it's no faster or more convenient than looking at a watch if you only want to tell the time.. Maybe it won't catch on until it's the same speed as glancing at my wrist.. :-)

The study is really a comparison of insecure magnetic stripe swipe & go with the more secure contactless EMV. The speed benefit of NFC or contactless EMV over contact EMV or mag stripe and sign is clear. Other benefits of NFC are additional and many.

Below is my view of each of the available payment technologies:

1) Mag stripe and signature = insecure, slow and attracting global fraud to the US
2) Mag stripe swipe & go = faster but even less secure
3) Contact EMV = similar speed as 1) and much more secure
4) Contactless EMV = similar speed as 2) and much more secure
5) Contactless NFC = As 4 but additional control for the issuer and convenience/functionality for the consumer as described above.

If you want to compare security, compare mag stripe with chip
If you want to compare speed, compare contact chip with contactless
If you want to compare functionality and convenience, compare contactless cards with NFC

I think to compare NFC with swipe and go magnetic stripe on the basis of speed alone and enable Finextra and others to paraphrase that "Oracle says that NFC is found lagging" is a bit wide of the mark.

Posted by Martin Cox on April 19, 2011 at 05:15 PM PDT #

Hi David,

I'd be interested to know if the NFC capability was enabled via SIM/UICC or embedded element. Some trials have indicated that SIM/UICC is much slower, while an embedded element phones have been able to achieve a response speed sub 100m.s.


Posted by Tom on April 19, 2011 at 10:52 PM PDT #

Should I assume that my post has been denied inclusion?


Posted by Martin Cox on April 21, 2011 at 04:18 PM PDT #

Martin, it seems my spam filter was a little too aggressive. I went back over the past 500 comments and found yours plus a few others that were not published. Sorry about that; fixed now.

Believe me, I'm a fan of NFC and have previously said that 2011 will be the year that it finally takes hold. I was just disappointed with the results of our initial PoC, and was asking if anyone else had the same issue. As you pointed out, things got lost in the translation.

Posted by David Dorf on April 21, 2011 at 10:03 PM PDT #

Hi David,

Thanks for posting my response. It does seem that those pro NFC and those more cynical are a little polarised and maybe since there are so many pro stories this year the news wires are looking for anything they can spin as a dissenting voice.

It's clear that speed is an issue that needs to be addressed, I think more to avoid failed transactions through premature removal of the card than convenience. As a consumer I often stand at a chip and PIN POS waiting for the approval wondering what happened to the promise of fast offline transactions. A two or even six second hold would be significantly faster provided the consumer could be persuaded to hold.. (which is where the real problem would be if this isn't resolved).

Posted by Martin Cox on April 23, 2011 at 06:05 PM PDT #

Hi David, We think differently. See our blog for the answer

Posted by Freedom on May 11, 2011 at 11:53 PM PDT #

Hi David Really interesting blog. I'm a sceptic about mobile NFC payments - mostly because of the lack of a critical mass infrastructure - contactless penetration is really very low. See for my own blog on this subject. But what really interests me is your point about doing all the processing on back-end servers rather than the card itself. I've been working for years on added value EMV applications like loyalty and social benefits processing and have come to the same conclusion. Telecoms are so fast and reliable now that you may as well do all processing online and just use the card for highly secure storage of "entitlement indicators" for the relevant applications. So that's the direction I think contact EMV multi-application cards are going to go in. But as you say, it doesn't do much for mobile NFC payments because surely the whole rationale here is for the transaction to be offline.

Posted by Nick Collin on June 12, 2011 at 12:40 AM PDT #

Nick, I'm looking forward to getting more details about the Google Wallet. We'll see how they handle payment, loyalty, and coupons within the same transaction. This will be an interesting year.

Posted by David Dorf on June 12, 2011 at 11:37 PM PDT #

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