Apple is talking to EE about NFC payments, says Olaf Swantee

Could Apple finally be ready to go NFC? At the launch of the Cash on Tap service, Stuff spoke to EE's CEO all about it
apple nfc ee

Olaf Swantee is overseeing the growth of the most disruptive UK network in over a decade. Since he launched EE as CEO just over 8 months ago, it's brought 4G LTE to 85 towns and cities and a claimed 55% of the UK's population.

And now, after doubling the LTE speeds in 12 UK cities and introducing multi-SIM plans, he's turned his attention to taking tap-to-pay NFC mobile payments mainstream.

Cash On Tap

The Mastercard-powered Cash On Tap, launching on July 17th, is a digital wallet app for EE's Android devices that can be topped up with funds from your credit and debit cards and allows you to make payments of up to £20 with a tap. It will also soon allow higher value payments to be made via tap-plus-PIN entry.

At launch it's available on the Sony Xperia SP, the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE and the S4, but not the NFC-equipped HTC One, and certainly not the iPhone 5 - because it lacks the requisite internals for the job.

But for how much longer? In an exclusive conversation with Stuff, Mr Swantee suggested that Apple is considering backing NFC for contactless payments. "We're discussing with them, obviously. I haven't heard the latest, but Apple's a very important strategic partner for us."

Apple to go NFC?

apple nfc

Apple has shied away from NFC technology in the past, pushing instead its own Passbook iOS app. This uses on-screen QR codes and barcodes read by old-fashioned laser scanners to make payments from specific store card apps.

Although Passbook is a convenient way to group store cards and has other uses such as ticketing and coupons, NFC payment systems provide a more seamless payment solution. You don't need to turn on your phone or access an app to make a payment - and it even works when your phone is out of charge.

Possibly the most compelling use of NFC would be in smart watches, as tapping a device that's on your wrist to a reader will be more convenient than fishing one out of your pocket. Sony's Smartwatch 2 already has the tech built in, and it's top of our Apple iWatch wish list.

But whether Apple bites or not, Swantee's bullish about the prospects of NFC mobile payment systems. He commented, "You don't only have iPhone, obviously, you have so many other devices. But I think [an NFC-equipped iPhone] would certainly help."

Long time coming

NFC-equipped phones have been promising to disrupt the way we pay for over five years. Stuff first trialled O2 Wallet on a Nokia 6131 in 2008, and since then we've seen numerous similar systems, including Google Wallet and the Barclaycard app for Android - but just how many times have you bought anything with a tap of your phone? We asked Swantee why EE's still backing mobile NFC payments in 2013.

"The tipping point comes first from the number of outlets and partners who will use it - that's key - and second from more NFC-enabled devices.

"You can't launch something like this without some level of critical mass: we've seen 230,000 UK outlets. There were payment systems available for years but now it's more prime-time as the ecosystem starts to be in place."

The tipping point

Swantee suggested that historically any change to the way we use money takes ages to bed in: "The payment industry has been quite slow - when you look back at how paper money started to replace coins, and when the plastic came in, these are very, very slow cycles. Definitely with mobile now, we're at the start of the cycle – the next wave."

"The whole payments industry and the banks believe that in time this particular product will become a very important payment mechanism. Because it's secure, but mostly because it's more convenient.

"I think we're already beyond the tipping point."