Weighing the Contactless Cost

If an access control system can combine convenience with a high level of integrity it will be popular with end users, many of whose employees may view security as nothing more than an unavoidable obstacle in their daily working lives. But for any access control system to be a winner, another factor must be considered: cost. A particular technology may offer security, reliability and ease of use, but it will only be specified if it is also cost-effective. Cost has prevented some from specifying contactless-based systems, but this need not be the case. It is worth considering what a contactless access control system has to offer and what makes it a cost-effective alternative to swipe card- and code-based access solutions.

A contactless-based system consists of two components: a reader and an identification device, such as a smart card, tuned to the same radio frequency, typically 13.56 MHz. The card contains information and data stored on an integrated mobile intelligent chip, which is read and processed by the reader unit through radio frequency identification. A good system should be designed to be open, flexible and modular, offering secure multi-application capability with a flexible segment length for each application. A range of transponders with different memory sizes and a number of compatible security modules should also be available with read/write distances covering contactless (or non-contact close range), hands-free and long-range use applications. Numerous smart cards can usually be accommodated on the same system, each issued with its own identity, enabling the reader to simultaneously process transactions from several different authorized individuals.

To activate the system and thereby gain access, the smart card must be placed within close range of the reader. Although some manufacturers and suppliers like to give the impression that contactless systems allow users to pass through a portal with no action required, this is not the case. The majority of systems have low read ranges, typically around 10mm to 70mm (although some manufacturers also offer active RF booster systems that permit reading of media over a distance of up to 20 meters), so cards need to be physically presented to the reader in order to activate them.

Contactless systems offer significant advantages in terms of convenience and cost efficiency. Whether the smart card is worn on a lanyard around the neck or clipped to a jacket, it requires little effort to use. This method takes less time than retrieving a card from a pocket and passing it through a swipe card slot. With no need for physical contact, there is no wear and tear on either the cards or the reader, meaning that both have longer lives in the field with less need for maintenance.

A further advantage associated with a contactless access control solution is that it offers a high level of vandal resistance when compared with a keypad or a swipe card reader. Because there is no physical contact between the smart card and the reader, no interface facility is required, and without a card slot or keypad, there is little for a vandal to attack. Where the risk of attack is particularly high, however, valuable reader electronics can be located on the secure side of an entrance or within a door or doorframe, out of reach of any vandals. Obviously readers with correct read ranges must be specified, and certain types of building fabric may affect the performance of such a system.

A contactless system offers a direct alternative to swipe card- or code-based systems, and will be suitable for use in a wide range of applications. While it is true that contactless-based access control systems used to command a high price, a closer examination shows the differential to have dropped significantly. When considered with the level of available security in mind, and with an eye for the total cost of ownership, contactless systems are actually something of a bargain.

Contactless-based technology provides a secure means of establishing control over access and egress and achieves this without causing unnecessary delays. Add to this the lack of downtime, which may be incurred by other technologies through replacing readers and cards, and the minimal cost differential can become a non-issue.

So, when looking at the cost of contactless systems compared with swipe card-based systems, there are two main points to be addressed: the initial outlay for the system and the ongoing costs.

Not long ago a contactless reader's cost was approximately double that of a standard magnetic swipe card reader, whereas now there is little to choose between them. The reasons are that contactless readers have no moving parts, are usually more durable, and benefit more than swipe card systems from economies of scale. With no moving parts there is less chance of the readers malfunctioning, so they offer a solution with a long life cycle. This translates into financial savings to the extent that the initial outlay for both swipe card and contactless systems is on par. Contactless smart cards cost do between two and three times what swipe cards do. However, this differential is tempered by the fact that a contactless smart card has a much longer life span and is less likely to be damaged.

This is not to suggest that contactless smart cards are ahead of swipe cards in all respects. Swipe cards may offer a more feasible solution at sites where the workforce is largely transient. However, in many applications the additional security and cost efficiency offered by a low-maintenance contactless smart card system may prove more attractive.

Stephen Neff is vice president of sales and marketing for LEGIC Identsystems Ltd.