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Near Field Communication – A Mobile Technology to Watch in 2011

By March 23, 2011Article

Imagine that you are entering an office, paying for lunch or purchasing a subway ticket by just using your mobile phone. You won’t need credit cards, tickets for the bus or train or any discount cards – just your smartphone. Imagine that you are entering a pub and with just swiping your device over a sticker tag you are navigated to a site with reviews and comments about the pub. All of these things are possible today and the main enabler is a wide adoption of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology.
NFC was developed as an extension of the well-known Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. The main difference is that NFC allows bidirectional communication between NFC enabled devices and communication with legacy RFID tags. Also, RFID readers can get information from NFC devices. NFC is similar to a contactless payment card that is integrated into a phone. It’s similar to Bluetooth, except that instead of programming two devices to work together, they can simply touch to establish a connection.
According to a Gartner study, NFC usage is going to increase significantly over the next couple of years. And it looks like this prediction is coming true. In the few years, the main players within the mobile market invested in NFC. In 2010, both Apple and Google started using NFC technology. Google released the Google Nexus S that supports NFC and published a new version of Android OS 2.3 that supports NFC, so far only in reader mode; Apple hired an NFC expert that led to rumors about NFC technology in iPhone 5 which is expected in 2011 and Nokia announced a NFC-enabled smartphone in early 2009, however it was cancelled due to a lack of NFC business environment.
In 2011, the NFC environment is set to explode – mobility giants such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless, MasterCard, and Visa started pilot projects in selected areas of the US to use Near Field Communications for business needs.
Here’s a list of business cases where NFC technology is applicable:
1. Digital wallet. NFC has a short range of about 1.5 inches. This makes it a good choice for secure transactions, such as contactless credit card payments. MasterCard and Visa are both members of the NFC Forum, and both companies have been involved in pilot programs that use NFC-enabled phones as a flash payment option. Phones could “tap and go” using their infrastructure for credit card systems such as MasterCard’s PayPass program or Visa’s payWave.The “digital wallet” concept could extend to coupons and other offers. Consumers can use the site to download coupons, which they exchange by having their phone swiped at the point of purchase.
2. Ticketing. NFC-enabled devices can be used for tickets in public transportation, concerts, events, theaters or even hotel reservations. A user will be able to purchase a ticket on-line and download it onto their mobile device. Then they will be able to check in or open a hotel room just by waving the device in front of the NFC reader.
This can reduce the number of various cards a person needs in everyday life.
The German rail operator Deutsche Bahn launched an NFC-ticketing pilot program in which 200 travelers touched their phones to an NFC tag when they boarded the train and then to another when they got off. The fare was calculated and added to their monthly bill. In January 2010, this successful program was expanded to an additional 3,000 travelers.
3. Enterprise data mining. Here is a great example of how NFC can be used in the Healthcare industry. “Program,” the NFC Forum’s prize winner, helps track patients in low resource areas, and is currently being used in a pneumonia study of young children in Pakistan. Each child is given a bracelet with a tag on it. The tag is scanned every time the child visits a participating health care organization. The clinical and laboratory data associated with that patient is collected and posted to a secure server in real-time.
For another project, tags were installed in schools. Students could get their individual daily schedule, announcements, and information about their homework by waving their phones past the tags.
4. Social networks. Social networks such as Facebook will benefit from NFC by incorporating the data received about users. For example: users would swipe their phones in order to alert their friends that they were “checked in” at that location, allow people to meet in a physical place and exchange profile data through their phones, real-time status updates (i.e. “I’m talking with smbd”, “I’m at this bar”), etc.
The main technical features of NFC that makes this technology valuable for mobility are listed below:

  • Security. NFC by itself cannot provide protection against eavesdropping or data modifications. The only solution to achieve this is the establishment of a secure channel over NFC. This can be done very easily, because the NFC link is not susceptible to the Man-in-the-Middle attack. This resistance against Man-in-the-Middle attacks makes NFC an ideal method for secure pairing of devices.
  • Support of RFID tags. NFC is a simple extension of the ISO/IEC 14443 RFID card standard that combines the interface of a smartcard and a reader into a single device. An NFC device can communicate with both existing ISO/IEC 14443 smartcards and readers, as well as with other NFC devices, and is thereby compatible with existing contactless infrastructure already in use for public transportation and payment.
  • High-speed data exchange. Supported data rates include: 106, 212, 424 or 848 kbit/s, plus NFC devices are able to transmit and receive at the same time so they can be used to transmit large amounts of data. These data rates can be compared with 3G data rates in US networks where the download speed varies from 293 kbit/s.
  • Standards. The NFC Forum was established to develop standards and specifications related to NFC. It’s being supported by major players such as MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Nokia, Research-In-Motion and Microsoft.

Roman Fihel is Mobility Consultant at SoftServe, a leading global provider of proven high quality software development, testing, and consulting services.

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