Orange Finally Gives Green Light For NFC In The UK

Looks like it is all coming together for mobile NFC, the technology that lets people buy things by simply waving a mobile handset at a point of sale. After years of trials, Orange and payment card provider Barclaycard have finally announced that this summer they will start to roll out a commercial, nationwide NFC service across the UK. But don’t think that means if you’re on the Orange network in the UK that you will be able to use the service from the word go…

In what Orange is hailing as a “revolution” in payments, this will be the UK’s first commercial NFC-based mobile payment service, initially covering some 42,500 stores, including the chains Pret a Manger, EAT and Little Chef, with Co-Op markets coming in the future. The service uses PayPass technology from MasterCard with NFC technology from Gemalto at the terminal end and comes two weeks after it emerged that Orange’s head of NFC, Mung-Ki Woo, was leaving for MasterCard.

But although Orange is promoting the service going live this summer, this won’t actually mean that if you are an Orange customer — smartphone or otherwise — that you will be able to wave your handset at the nearest Little Chef for a cold beer at the first sign of hot weather.

Since this will be a SIM-based NFC service, Orange will still need to roll out upgraded SIMs; and once you have one of those, you will need to download the relevant apps in order to be able to use them. And it seems the services won’t be usable on all devices, either. Nokia (NYSE: NOK) has rolled out NFC capability in select handsets, and Google’s Nexus S is NFC-enabled, but otherwise there have been few signs from the handset makers of actually building this into their devices en masse — although plenty like to speculate about it.

There’s not much detail yet on how, exactly, this will work in the UK. Orange says in the release that it is “working with the world’s leading handset manufacturers” to enable the service. We have reached out to the company to clarify exactly what that means more specifically.

What you will likely be able to use for the service in the early days is a Barclaycard credit or debit card, if you have one — Barclaycard says that today there are 11.6 million contactless credit and debit cards already in circulation in the UK — “of which over 10 million have been issued by Barclaycard and Barclays.” You will likely also be able to download an app on your phone to link up with that card, but this, of course, is not the same thing as waving a handset.

Nevertheless, the move is a sign of how serious operators are about making sure they are not locked out of making money in the next generation of mobile services. Mobile operators have long been pushing for NFC services that reside on a customer’s SIM card, rather than in the device itself. Their claim is that this provides a more secure solution — although it will also mean that operators can be more involved in customer “ownership” and account management, and all of the revenue generation that will entail. This new service is no exception: the NFC service from Barclaycard and Everything Everywhere will be SIM-based in order to provide a “single point of customer contact” says Orange.

The news comes on the back of several other NFC advances: the next generation of Android devices are also getting equipped for the technology; and Apple is reportedly putting NFC into its next-gen iPhone. Among operators, Orange is also driving an NFC rollout in France; and in the U.S. Verizon, AT&T (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile have formed the Isis JV to also look at how they can roll out the technology.