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Breakthrough in smartcard technology spells good news for European consumers


E-commerce transactions are becoming more and more frequent in today’s fast-paced society. How about going one step further and making these transactions through your mobile phone, television set top box or even pen and diary based services. The technology breakthroughs achieved by the EUREKA Cluster Project A302 (Esp@ss-is) on smartcard platform development have improved the quality and the type of data that can be processed reducing even more the risks of identity theft.

In the past, a smartcard chip could only hold and transmit 424 K of data per second through a radio frequency interface (contact-less interface). However, the ten partners of the MEDEA+ A302 Project on smartcard platforms have succeeded in achieving 1.7Mb of data per second on a smartcard chip, which is ample to perform transactions requiring high security, such as paying bills, when connected to the Internet through a wireless interface.

"Because of its nature, and because of the data a smartcard can now hold, it can be more secure. It can hold more proof that you are a person and not a server or a machine. For instance through biometric data such as fingerprinting." says project leader Jean-Paul Thomasson of STMicroelectronics, one of the technology providers in the project consortium.

MEDEA+ is the industry-initiated pan-European programme for advanced co-operative Research and Development (R&D) in microelectronics and a EUREKA Cluster. The project partners included a university and SMEs, as well as Europe’s leading system providers such as Philips and Thomson. Although all the partners knew each other well before starting their collaboration, Thomasson says, "Having the Eureka label gave credibility to the project and to the consortium.”

Exploiting a fast growing market

As well as innovation, the project breakthrough has allowed the consortium to exploit the card based e-commerce market, currently estimated at 20 billion euros in Europe. The market is set to expand rapidly, with analysts forecasting that within the next four years, the number of users accessing the Internet through other means than a laptop or desk based computer is set to increase. This is due to the lower price and greater ease of use of these appliances, coupled with the fast internet access that is now being facilitated through wireless, cable, satellite and ADSL (asynchronous digital subscriber line) technologies.

The MEDEA+ consortium members, from France, Italy and the Netherlands, are in the process of seeking ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) and ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) standardisation for their achievements. They expect the memory capacity embedded on smartcards to rise eight fold in the next three years which will pave the way for the growth of new markets, for instance, in medical applications with the safe storage of medical histories and x-rays on personal health-cards, or the ability to download whole sporting events such as football matches, to your phone, video or television to watch at your convenience.

Working primarily to meet the needs of operators and services in the mobile telecommunications, banking and pay-TV sectors, their achievements also correspond to the requirements of new global sectors in public administration, for the development of highly secure ID cards, driving licenses, e-passports and travel visas. Thomasson foresees that “Growth in these areas will be slower”, adding that, “It takes time to change institutional thinking.” Having said that, STMicroelectronics is already involved in developing projects especially in China.

European advantage

Europe is well placed to take advantage of the developments with its domination of the world smartcard market. This is true for card software suppliers as well as manufacturers of micro-controllers for smartcards, with well over half of all the cards currently in use around the world produced in European smartcard factories.

The prime objective was to deliver the hardware and software to form a basis for open platforms permitting the development of secure value-added services in telecommunications, banking, pay-TV, health and other sectors. However, the MEDEA+ Project consortium has also gone further by defining the basic technological building blocks to high-speed wireless and contact-less protocols, defined as a secondary objective. With its wide vertical partnership and global reach, the EsP@ss-IS A302 Project has become the flagship for all Eureka smartcard projects.

Paul McCallum | alfa
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