NXP Releases New NFC Tag Chips for New Applications

By Claire Swedberg

The company's NTAG21x series supports such functions as tracking which tags have been accessed by consumers, off-line authentication via a digital signature and the ability for a tag to count the number of times it is read.

With the goal of providing greater flexibility to the burgeoning non-payment Near Field Communication (NFC) technology market, California integrated circuit (IC) manufacturer NXP Semiconductors has developed a new series of NFC high-frequency (HF) passive RFID chips intended to make serialization easier, by providing a URL "mirror" allowing businesses to track which NFC tags are being used at any given time, and enabling smartphone readers to unlock signatures on NFC tags online. The features are all part of the company's effort to provide tag chips for more diverse uses of NFC technology in non-payment environments. The four chips within the new NTAG21x family are now available as samples, and will begin shipping to tag manufacturers and other customers by the end of this year.

NXP Semiconductors, which provides a variety of ultrahigh-frequency (840 to 960 MHz) and HF (13.56 MHz) RFID chips, is releasing the new product family as its second generation of ICs intended specifically for NFC tags and applications.

Giancarlo Cutrignelli, NXP's senior global marketing manager

The company has been focusing on NFC technology development for several years, initially with chips for RFID readers embedded in mobile phones and tablets. In fact, says Giancarlo Cutrignelli, NXP's senior global marketing manager, the firm has sold 100 million such chips for NFC-enabled reader devices to date. "The market has shown tremendous growth" during the past year, he says, and while NXP has provided the ICs for readers, it found that there was a shortage of NFC tag chips able to meet the diverse requirements of the NFC applications being launched worldwide. In September 2011, NXP released its N203 tag IC, which he says "was a tremendous success," based on high sales to customers in the non-payment NFC market. However, this second generation of NFC tag chips—the NTAG21x family—will enable the development of new tags with greater functionality to meet the diverse needs of NFC technology users.

The four chips have varying amounts of memory: The NTAG210 chip, with just 48 bytes of user memory, is the least expensive, and is intended for the mass-market use case of tags requiring only a very simple function, such as directing a smartphone or other RFID-reading device to a URL. The NTAG213 model has 144 bytes of memory, the NTAG 215 version has 504 bytes and the NTAG216 chip, at 888 bytes, has the most memory. Unlike the NTAG203 chip, all of these come with functionality that includes password protection, mirroring, a serialization service to enable that mirroring, and a counter function to count read taps and authentication signatures for authentication applications that can be read offline by any NFC reader. NXP also offers a fifth chip, the NTAG 216F model, which is a version of the NTAG 216 chip that provides a sleep mode.

There are a wide variety of NFC deployments currently underway or at the pilot stage globally, Cutrignelli says, which require increasingly flexible tags. For example, the print industry uses NFC chips embedded in business cards that, in some cases, require high memory to store data that could be accessed via an NFC-enabled phone—or that, in other cases, simply require a link to a URL. The smartphone industry has begun marketing preprogrammed tags for changing the phone's functions, such as switching a ring tone or connecting to a navigation application with the tap of phone against a tag. This typically requires a high-memory tag.

In other applications, NFC tags in electronic shelf labels are being used by retailers and brand owners to simply direct users to the URL of a Web site providing information regarding a product. Finally, some NFC tags are being employed for product authentication, requiring a digital signature to identify each tag as belonging to a unique product.

To meet this variety of use cases, NXP has built a variety of functions into its new chips. For example, a mirroring function allows a company to determine which tag is being read by a consumer's smartphone or other RFID-reading device, thereby enabling analytics about the use rate of any specific tag and its location. Without mirroring, a company has no way of knowing which tag was used to access a URL. In the case of mirroring, however, a tag is encoded not just to direct an NFC-reading device to a specific URL, but to do so with its own unique serial number, so that a record can be maintained of which specific tag was used. Although this is already possible on existing chips (by sequentially storing that serialization on the chip's memory), Cutrignelli says, the newest chips' hardware is designed in such a way as to enable those serial numbers to be much more quickly encoded on the chip. "This feature is implemented in the hardware," he explains. NXP also provides the service to accomplish the task of serializing the chips. Thus, a tag manufacturer could, for example, receive an order for a series of tags to link to a URL, and NXP could then provide the serialization of those chips to link to a URL, each with its own serial number.

For authentication applications, the chips are encoded with a so-called "originality signature." In this case, Cutrignelli says, "We wanted to create a very simple way to prove the originality of a chip (and, therefore, of the product the tag is attached to)." This signature can be accessed by any NFC reader, and be verified simply by downloading the corresponding public key (available on the Internet), which is a simpler process than the existing method of a handheld reader requiring specific software and hardware to accomplish the reading and verification of signatures (often necessitating a link to a database via the Internet).

"The key point," with the new chip, Cutrignelli says, "is that no secure key distribution, storage and processing is required on the NFC phone or reader."

The new chips also come with a function for counting the number of times that a tag is read. This counter not only enables end users to store a record on the tag regarding its quantity of use, but also allows other solutions, such as providing the first 20 customers who read the tag to receive a promotional offer.

The NTAG 216F chip can also be used to integrate with the functionality of an electronic device. For example, it can detect RF energy and direct that energy to an electronic device to which it is attached, in order to accomplish a function such as powering the device on or off. Conversely, it can also be configured to enter sleep mode under specific circumstances, such as when a device loses power.

NFC technology company Thinaire intends to utilize NXP's latest chips for its own tags, which it has been piloting recently at stores in California with Kraft Foods and News America Marketing. "The new tags contain fast-read capabilities, UID [unique identifier] mirroring and a 24-bit NFC counter—all new features that Thinaire believes will revolutionize the industry," says Mark Donovan, Thinaire's COO.

RFID tag provider Smartrac also intends to include the new NTAG ICs into its NFC standard product portfolio, as well as in custom solutions, says Ivan Plajh, the head of Smartrac's business line of mobile and smart media. "We see the current release of the NTAG21x family as one of the enablers of high-volume NFC tag applications," he says, "and we strongly believe that it will become a new standard soon."

With all of these functions, Cutrignelli says, "We want to demonstrate that while payment is a relevant application for NFC, it is not the only application. It's a clear commitment of NXP to support the development of NFC non-payment applications."

The chips come in a range of prices that Cutrignelli says are competitive, though he declines to provide specific pricing. The cost of the chips increases according to memory size. "We're aware of the competitive landscape," he says, and the chips are priced accordingly, but he adds, "The real target NXP has is not to provide simply the cheapest chip, but rather to minimize the total cost of ownership, which is what counts." NXP is now sampling its new chips to selected customers.