What Is Near Field Communication?

What is near field communication? Near Field Communication (NFC) is a term that refers to a set of standards for a specific method of wirelessly transmitting data either via direct (touching) contact or over a very short distance (inches).

Most widely adopted for use in consumer-facing applications, NFC chips are almost ubiquitous in today’s smartphones (starting with Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 and, for iOS, the Apple iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, etc.). NFC-enabled devices have the ability to function as both readers and tags – so individuals can use their handheld technology to not only capture information but directly share information as well.

Near field communication can be used in three types of transactions: peer to peer, read/write, and card emulation. What is near field communication? It's technology that enables quick file sharing between enabled devices.

  • Peer to peer – two NFC-enabled devices in close contact can swap information and share files (think pictures and contact details) without the need for special pairing code or connecting cables.
  • Read/write – NFC-enabled devices can read information from simple NFC tags (such as those embedded in event posters or museum exhibit signage).
  • Card emulation – NFC-enabled devices like smartphones can take the place of smart cards, enabling users to make payments with their phones (think Apple Pay, Google Wallet, Android Pay, etc.).

NFC was developed as an extension of HF RFID technology

Having answered ‘What is Near Field Communication?’, what’s the difference between NFC and RFID?

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing.

What is the difference between near field communication and RFID (radio frequency identification)? Rather than thinking of them as competing technologies, it can be more helpful to understand their relationship. Both describe ways to capture and wirelessly transmit information through electromagnetic radiation. RFID encompasses a wide range of technologies; NFC is a set of standards for how one subcategory of RF-enabled devices communicates with each other.

To explain further, let’s look at the basics.

FIRST | Three things compose a simple RFID system: a chip, an antenna, and a reader. An RFID reader sends out an electromagnetic signal with the help of an antenna and, in return, receives the unique identifying information that the chip sends back.

NEXT | RFID tags can be divided into two main categories: active and passive. Active RFID tags have their own power sources and can send identification information – from distances up to 300 feet away – without needing to be activated by a reader’s signal.

Alternatively, if the RFID tag is a passive tag, it relies on the exciting energy from a reader for its power, and cannot broadcast its information in the absence of an activating reader signal. The ability of a reader to capture a passive RFID tag’s information is limited by the strength of the signal the tag can send back and is typically limited to distances of no more than 50 feet.

FINALLY | Every passive RFID tag is built to transmit its information within a specific frequency range, the three most common classifications being: 125-134.2 kHz – Low Frequency/LF RFID tags; 13.56 MHz – High Frequency/HF RFID tags; and 860-960 MHz – Ultra-High Frequency/UHF RFID tags. In general, the higher the frequency range, the further a tag can be from a reader and still be read.

NFC was developed as an extension of HF RFID technology and operates at 13.56 MHz, the same frequency as passive HF RFID tags. It was purposely created for applications where the security of the data being shared would be enhanced by the proximity restrictions inherent to the system.

Considerations for NFC in the Enterprise
Consider: Because they operate on the same frequency, NFC-enabled devices can read some HF passive RFID tags.

Takeaway: With NFC, consumer smartphones, employees’ BYOT devices and many of today’s enterprise mobile computers have the ability to be used as very limited capacity RF readers. So if you have an RFID infrastructure in place, you can incorporate passive HF RFID tags into your operations and provide more interactivity in your guest experiences.

Consider: Unlike RFID readers, which can read many RFID tags at once, NFC-enabled devices can only read one tag at a time.

Takeaway: When it comes to employee access, ticketing, and other one-on-one applications, NFC may be an option for some enterprises. For asset tracking and other applications where large volumes of items need to be identified and captured quickly or as a group, NFC is not the right technology for the job; passive UHF RFID, on the other hand, offers a much wider range of capabilities and is ideally suited to such requirements.

For more information on RFID solutions and determining which RFID technology is best suited to your application, contact us today.