BY JANE ADAMS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
Last month we wrote about the different components that form contactless smart card chips and we followed the manufacturing process from silicon to finished card. This month we’ll take a more in-depth look at current product strategies and trends in the development of contactless chip technology.
It’s only a few years since contactless smart cards were standardised, with the resulting standard containing two communications protocols–ISO 14443 A and B. The majority of type A chips are Philips’ Mifare variety, though other non-Mifare type A chips can be created. The other variety of contactless chip standardized via the International Organization for Standards is the ISO 15693.
According to Dataquest, the contactless chip market leader during 2001 was Philips Semiconductors, followed by STMicroelectronics and then Hitachi. Figures have not yet been released for 2002 but the industry association, Eurosmart, projects 35 million memory cards and 12 million microprocessor cards in the transport sector alone. The vast majority of these will be contactless chips with Mifare maintaining a significant lead.
Though Mifare is the dominant contactless product worldwide, Bruno Charrat, product marketing manager at Inside Contactless, is quick to stress that type B’s momentum is growing. He points out that “today there are around 250 million type A cards in the market but this is since 1988. For type B there are 20 million sold since 1999.”
Mifare’s dominance is largely based on its historical success in mass transit. “The infrastructure we have in the field now for type A cards is huge, with 1.5m readers,” says Walter Dulnigg, marketing manager transport, Identification Business Unit, Philips Semiconductors.
However, as Mr. Charrat points out, type B is beginning to gain ground. Proposals for the Japanese national ID card scheme, which will require around 120 million cards, have specified type B microcontrollers. The reason, according to Hitachi’s business development manager, Smart Card Group, Ken Warren is the government’s desire to promote multiple sourcing. The Chinese national ID card program is also likely to specify type B memory chips.
Reasons for choosing between A and B are often commercial says Dr. Detlef Houdeau, senior director, contactless activities, Secure Mobile Solutions Business Group, Infineon Technologies.
“For example some transport projects in France are only type B, (likely because) there is a local player,” says Dr. Houdeau. “In Japan and Asia Pacific it can be a question of modulation frequency and the interference of other sources. So there it’s a technical reason.” Infineon sells both type A and type B.
One clear trend is for manufacturers to offer contactless chips with more than one communications protocol. Infineon for example now supports both ISO 14443 A and B as well as Sony’s Felica technology on its my-c family of chips.
Atmel also plans to offer A and B on a single chip. “Before in Atmel we tended towards only B but our customers want only one platform, and to design only one operating system. With this platform and OS they want to support different applications. Clearly our customers will select a supplier supporting both protocols,” says Mr. Roche.
Hitachi’s AE45X series of dual interface processors offers both type B and Felica technology. Mr. Warren says, “At this point we don’t have an A product in the portfolio but we are looking at introducing the interface on next generation devices.”
He adds, “One of the requirements we have for the next iteration of this device is to have dynamic interface selection. The chip will present to the terminal and then as part of the transaction select A or B. At the moment chips are configured as type A or B as part of the manufacturing process.” Dynamic interface selection will be available mid 2003.
Inside Contactless offers a memory chip carrying both 14443 B and the longer-range standard ISO 15693. While the 14443 communications standard works faster, 15693 works at a greater distance. “If time is critical we use type B and if they want to do tracking at the exit, they can use long range readers to communicate with the chip on 15693,” says Mr. Charrat.
Often manufacturers offer the same basic processor platform for contact, contactless and dual interface chips. Dual interface chips use the same chip for storage and processing but provide both a contact and a contactless interface to the chip. For example, Atmel is busy redeveloping its contactless microprocessor offer and expects it to be available Q3 2003. “The idea was to start with a banking secure microcontroller and to add the contactless interface,” says Herve Roche, marketing manager, IT, pay TV and contactless for Atmel. “The only real changes will be to power supply and clock management.”
“Today for working with existing markets you need dual interface because you have contact and contactless readers so you need to make a bridge between the two worlds,” says Mr. Charrat.
Opinion varies as to whether this will continue to be the norm. “Many people in Asia are thinking to go directly to contactless only for one simple reason,” says Mr. Charrat, “it’s much cheaper. And card reliability is much higher.”
Others aren’t so sure. “A contact interface is useful when you want to download programs or do extensive transactions,” says Dr. Toshio Nomura, research manager at Sharp Laboratories. “People like the fact that it’s very certain.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a given that everything will go contactless,” says Hitachi’s Warren. “One thing that could delay that is that a contactless terminal, while it doesn’t have the mechanical parts of a contact one, is more expensive.”
New memory types
Alternatives to the traditional EEPROM, ROM, RAM trilogy that have dominated the contactless chip landscape to date are being pursued at growing rates. Perhaps that is because, many believe the day is near when applications for these cards outstretch the technology’s capabilities.
Chip communications and processing times have become four times faster and security has increased by a factor of more than one-hundred since the birth of contactless cards. “The only area we hadn’t been able to improve on was memory access,” says Andrew Roberts, strategic marketing and communications manager, Smartcard Division, STMicroelectronics.
Current projects will change that. In October 2002 STMicroelectronics jointly announced with Fujitsu the ST19ZR01, the first contactless smart card IC with FRAM and ROM, but no standard RAM. FRAM offers fast read and write times (less than 200 nanoseconds), according to STMicroelectronics, and extremely low standby current (a few microamps). This results in lower power consumption and faster write times than the traditional EEPROM technology. However, FRAM is expensive compared to EEPROM and with far less in production volume savings are not yet significant.
When it comes to Flash memory, not all manufacturers see it as relevant to contactless cards. “Flash consumes a lot of power and for contactless applications you need to consume very small amounts of power,” says Charrat. “It is not compatible with contactless.”
Others think it suitable for large memory capacity cards. Sharp’s one megabyte contactless chip used in the NTT DoCoMo card uses Flash memory. “Flash could be relevant to contactless. Once you get over 128k of memory then Flash is more economical and better suited to high density memory application,” explains Roberts. “For low end products EEPROM will continue to play a part. Above 128k we believe Flash will replace it.”
EEPROM is by no means defunct though. Both Infineon and Inside are concentrating on EEPROM for the time being. “We (Infineon) have only EEPROM,” says Dr. Houdeau. “We look for a very stable non-volatile memory solution both for yield and for quality of manufacturing.”
Others are exploring futuristic memory types. Hitachi is investigating a technology called Super EEPROM. This stores multiple bits in the same cell and doubles the density of the EEPROM. STMicro is exploring Phase Change memory. “In four or five years you will have Magnetic RAM and Phase Change memory,” says Roberts. “Phase Change memory is very interesting for contactless. It’s very fast, very dense and it is fairly simple theoretically to manufacture.”
Phase Change memory uses the same technology as re-writeable CD-ROMs but applied to silicon. Currently only Intel and ST have a licence to manufacture it. Magnetic RAM (MRAM) uses magnetism rather than electricity to store data and so it does not require a constant source of power to retain information as does standard RAM.
Memory versus Microprocessors
Most attention is focused on microprocessors, though the bulk of contactless chips sold continue to be memory chips. This balance may alter but not entirely. “There will still be a need for memory chips for the one day traveller,” says Roberts. “All season ticket holders are going to need microprocessors.”
Those memory chips could go into paper tickets. Philips has launched the Mifare Ultralight, a low-cost read/write memory chip for use in paper tickets. They contain 512 bits of EEPROM. “At the moment, that’s more than enough. It can even store characteristics of your fingerprint,” says Mr. Dulnigg. The finished paper ticket sells for 20-25 eurocents. ASK also manufactures a paper-based contactless memory card that is used in transit applications in Capri, Italy and other locations (see ContactlessNews, January 2003).
“I think the market will split into two parts. The first will be for very low cost memory chips with few functions and no security. The other way will be to have a low cost microprocessor chip,” says Inside’s Mr. Charrat. “Complicated memory chips will disappear.”