RFID v. Satellite in Smart Container Cargo Security

Why RFID systems for global supply chain and cargo security fall short when compared to satellite technology

Although most retailers use RFID, it seems that because retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot use it, it must be good for the supply chain too. And because firms like Maersk, GE, Siemens, IBM, SAVI and others have already adopted it for global supply chain use, it must be good. And, of course, since nobody of that stature has gone to satellite communications that does more than simple GPS tracking, satellite communications must not be good for global supply chain communications. Well, here is the reality: RFID is not good for global supply chain usage and satellite is good. In fact, RFID usage is actually dangerous for applications in U.S. seaports. It's time to compare. I've chosen six areas of comparison: technical application, infrastructure needs, timeliness of reporting, features available, costs, and risks.

Technical applications

RFID is critically impaired for global usage, first because there is no worldwide agreement on frequencies. The RFID frequency on which data are carried is not the same RFID frequency in Germany that is approved for use in the U.S., nor approved by China for use there. Since frequencies vary, so do the equipment requirements, making it virtually impossible to use everywhere in the world. That presents an obvious problem, since global supply chains allow containers to go everywhere in the world.

Additionally, protocols differ. Protocols are like someone speaking French and the other English at different speeds, stopping and starting at different times. In other words, there are no global RFID communicating rules.

Satellite has no such limitations. A satellite system using either low earth orbit (LEO) constellations or a high-altitude geosynchronous satellite transmits data differently, but the vendors' systems will work anywhere in the world that they have coverage. Therefore, satellite applications are not critically impaired by regional differences and are useful for global container security.


RFID, since it is radio frequency, needs antennas in every location where one wants to read or talk to the RFID unit of the container. Antennas for RFID readers must be placed on property owned by the RFID user, leased by it, or provided to it. Acquisition, then, is both a legal and operational issue, especially when RFID signals have only limited distance and direction. Readers with antennas also require maintenance and control. Furthermore, other users of RFID can select locations for their units which interfere or distort another RFID user's signals - a footprint problem. It also seems that fixed antennas may not be practical given legal access rights and costs. Therefore, handheld transceivers must replace the fixed antennas, creating another problem of equipment needs, the need for increased personnel to interrogate each container, and the high costs of handheld units. Satellite has virtually none of these problems.

Timeliness & Features

Automated RFID systems can only make use of chokepoints or physical areas through which the container must pass, such as at the gate of a port, or on the crane in charge of unloading a ship. Similar to the transceivers used at department store doors that alert if the RFID tag is not removed for the product just purchased, no alert is given until one passes through the chokepoint. In other words, RFID is land-based and historical in nature. The container reports what happened to it before it reached the chokepoint only at the time it passes through the chokepoint where there is an antenna and transceiver to interrogate it. Of course, if the container were breached and goods stolen or an explosive device inserted prior to the chokepoint, it would be too late to actively respond to the breach, assuming the RFID unit was integrated with a container alarm system which could detect breaches into the container in addition to container door access. The benefit of a satellite system is that it can communicate in real time or nearly real time depending on the satellite system used.

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