Untitled_2_copy.pngFrance-based mobile network operator Orange early next year plans to allow subscribers in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux to pay for retail purchases, ride mass transit and download information from advertising posters by tapping mobile phones that support Near Field Communication.

The operator and partners have made a regional announcement of the project, which Orange reportedly said would be its first, limited, commercial service using NFC phones. Participating in the project are LaSer, the credit loyalty card division of retail Groupe Galeries Lafayette; Veolia Transport, operator of buses and light rail in the city; and media firm Clear Channel, which owns outdoor advertising in the city.

Under the service, subscribers would be able to pay for purchases at some Groupe Galeries Lafayette stores, reportedly including Monoprix and the group’s namesake department store, Galeries Lafayette. Subscribers also would be able to tap to ride on buses and trains and reportedly could download coupons and other information by touching their phones to smart tags in posters. This could open mobile Internet sessions on the phones. NFC phones contain chips and short-range radio antennas that enable the phones to emulate contactless cards and also act as contactless readers.

Orange declined to say how many phones supporting NFC it plans to make available to subscribers in Bordeaux. It also was short on details for how many subscribers it hopes to sign up for the service and when it might expand NFC outside of Bordeaux. The operator and its parent, France Télécom, tested similar applications last year along with partners, including LaSer. The parties held a multiapplication NFC pilot in the French city of Caen. Orange also has quietly tested a transit-ticketing application with Paris Métro operator RATP.

“There will be very few handset models available at launch, due to the limited availability of compatible NFC phones,” said Vincent Poulbere, a France-based senior consultant for UK-based telecoms and IT research firm Ovum, in a statement. “Throughout 2008 and 2009, Orange hopes to expand the portfolio with compatible devices from most major manufacturers, and also expand the services to other French towns.” Poulbere, in an article posted on Ovum’s Web site, called the announcement “significant,” and was the first from a major European operator launching mobile contactless services. He predicted Orange would also expand to other European cities. Orange announced the launch of the project in Bordeaux on Wednesday

The applications for the project are expected to be stored on SIM cards the operator would issue, which would also control subscribers’ access to the network. At the very least, the SIMs would control applications that get loaded onto the phone or have a role in security. It wasn’t clear whether subscribers would be able to download the applications over the air to the SIMs, but they likely would buy transit tickets over the network.

Card Technology reported in May that Orange was targeting an early 2008 launch of NFC commercial service in at least one French city and was preparing to issue a request for proposal to vendors seeking a “trusted service manger” to administer multiple applications on SIM cards it issues for use in the NFC handsets.

“Important hurdles still need to be overcome, in particular handset availability,” stated Poulbere. “Therefore, our market-development scenario for NFC remains unchanged. We still consider that large-scale adoption by end users and wide availability of services will become a reality in the most advanced markets from 2010 at the earliest.” (2007-06-29)