What is Near Field Communication?
24th January 2012
NFC (Near Field Communication) is a short range; standards based wireless connectivity technology based on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) which uses magnetic field induction to enable communication between electronic devices in close proximity.
NFC operates in the standard unlicensed 13.56MHz frequency band (plus 847.5KHz) over a distance of approximately 20cm. To date, it supports data rates of 106Kbps, 212Kbps and 424Kbps although higher data rates are expected in the future.
There are two main modes of operation covered by NFC; these being termed active and passive. In active mode, both NFC capable devices generate their own radio field to transmit data where as in passive mode; only one device generates a radio field where as the other uses load modulation to transfer data.
To date, NFC technology is widely used for access control and electronic ticketing where the user simply waves a credit card shaped tag in front of a reader. However, due to the near universal take up of mobile phones, NFC technology will be widely incorporated into these devices over the next few years. This is seen as one of the key enablers for NFC take up as it enables the technology to be used in a myriad of new and exciting ways.
Transit & Ticketing
Commuter transit systems across Europe and Asia already use NFC technology to improve service on their trains, trams, buses and undergrounds. These have tended to be smart card based although a number of mobile phone based systems are coming into operation. When using a mobile phone, subscribers will be able to not only use their phone as the ticket but also buy new tickets, top up pre-paid systems, review current balances etc. using the phone’s existing features such as screen, keypad and not least their cellular data connection.
Ticketing need not only be restricted to travelling but instead rolled out to incorporate entertainment events such as theatres, pop concerts and sporting events. For example, rather than issuing a “paper ticket” which can be easily forged, or “touted” on the black market, an eticket could be sent to a mobile via SMS packet data connection. This could then be stored on the phone until the recipient turned up at the event and “wiped” their NFC capable phone across a reader located in a turnstile. Not only would this reduce cost and distribution problems, but security could be enhanced and access to the event could be speeded up considerably.
NFC enabled devices are able to store a payment application that is compatible with millions of installed contactless payment readers; MasterCard PayPass and Visa payWave etc. The intuitive simplicity of holding a mobile phone close to a terminal to purchase products or services instead of swiping or handing over a payment card could, according to many analysts, change the way we shop in the future. The phone, or more accurately the SIM or UICC (Universal Integrated Circuit Card) will be able to store information about multiple accounts; debit cards, credit cards and loyalty cards etc within different security domains. This will permit subscribers to select which payment method they wish to use in addition to collecting and reviewing award points from a loyalty scheme. The subscriber will simply “wave” their phone over an existing reader; enter their PIN (Personal Identification Number) and possibly “wave” their phone again as confirmation. They can then collect any customer loyalty points, check their balance or even use these as part payment!
In this mode of operation, the subscriber will wave their NFC enabled phone next to an NFC Tag which will then typically provide a small amount of information which can either be displayed or trigger an executable action such as send an SMS, call a telephone number or open a browser and link to a specified web page.
One example of this type of allocation is the smart poster which could contain an NFC Tag holding promotional information such as contact details or discount vouchers. Alternatively, the posters could provide entertainment programmes or trigger the sending of premium rate text messages to download ring tones etc.
NFC Tags have now reached a commercial point where it is feasible to print off batches of stickers that enable users to create short cuts to make their daily lives easier. Examples include placing stickers around a building enabling lone security guards to check in as they move around through to children registering the fact they have returned home after school!
NFC devices are able to operate in a peer-to-peer mode enabling the bi-directional transfer of information between the two devices. Although this is nothing new in concept, NFC technology is being incorporated into other systems such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to make the discovery and pairing / setup mechanisms much simpler. For example, when exchanging electronic business cards between mobile phones, the subscribers would simply bring the two phones close together to initialize the Bluetooth connection. Furthermore, when entering a Wi-Fi Hotspot or Wi-Fi Zone, the subscriber could simply position their NFC enabled device next to a Tag to download the necessary security parameters.
To date, both the Bluetooth SIG and the Wi-Fi Alliance have incorporated NFC technology into their standards and many other bodies are planning to incorporate a “touch and go” option based on NFC.
Next Month – How does NFC work?