RFID: Evolving Into an Enterprise Solution

New RFID innovations may open the door to broader-based RFID solutions in the retail and business sectors.

Some entities are currently using such RFID tracking on the palette and carton level, but it will likely be some time before individual product items fit into this scheme. When they do, however, it will open the door to integrate retail security, inventory management and cargo tracking into one, automated process. One possible future scenario was demonstrated at the Retail Systems 2003 convention in Chicago in June. Checkpoint Systems, PSC Inc. and Mirasys Communications collaborated to produce the "smart checkout," in which they demonstrated a single scanner equipped to both read RFID/EPC technology and bar codes and to deactivate EAS tags. This scenario foretells a quicker retail checkout procedure and an option for a slow and less painful transition from older technologies to EPC.

In the Business Sector
* Building Access. Traditional RFID for access control needs little introduction. Since its initial break onto the scene in the '80s, use of RFID for physical access has grown quickly and dramatically. The most commonly used form of RFID for building access is the 125kHz frequency, commonly called proximity or prox. It offers many benefits, particularly for large or highly sensitive facilities. For one, it gets employees through the door more quickly, since prox readers are faster than magstripe readers and employees don't have to go through the extra step of sliding the card through them. It's also more difficult to counterfeit a prox card than a magstripe, so the very format of the card leaves a facility less vulnerable to intrusion. In fact, prox cards and fobs can be designed to include no identifying marks on their facades, so if a credential is lost or stolen, the thief may not even be able to determine where to use it.

But prox isn't only for highly sensitive facilities. Smaller, non-sensitive facilities also benefit from the technology. The Atlanta Opera, for instance, uses prox keyfobs and readers for access to and within its headquarters facility. Though the readers are more expensive to install than magstripe, they offer long-term savings in maintenance. Because there is no contact between credential and reader, the cards don't wear out and neither do the reader heads. Some small facilities with high turnover find great benefit in the ability to reprogram credentials for new employees and avoid the cost of replacing them.

The biggest new development in the building access control arena is the bridling of the 13.56MHz frequency for access control. Several key manufacturers introduced this technology in early 2002, and others have followed quickly behind, creating a frantically competitive environment. The 13.56MHz credential is a contactless smart credential. It is read/write, has a much higher data transfer rate than traditional prox, and offers a longer read range. This credential essentially offers the benefits of contactless technology with the ability to store greater amounts of information, such as a biometric template. Some of the 13.56 manufacturers are still beta testing their products, and those that have begun to ship haven't yet seen an explosion of prospects. Much of this is probably due to the increased expense of smart card installations and the ever-present legacy systems argument. But technology development is a slow process, said Debra Spitler, vice president of marketing for ASSA ABLOY's Identification Technology Group. "I think we have to be realistic and say prox is going to remain strong because the installed base is so huge," she said. "But over time people who are using magstripe—which is considered to be a non-secure technology for access control because of the ease of duplicating a magstripe card—will eventually start an upgrade process, and I think they'll jump over prox and go to 13.56."

* Lot and Vehicle Access. The 902 to 928MHz RFID frequency is generally used for automatic vehicle identification—the same thing that fast-tracks you through the toll booth on your EZPass while you laugh maniacally at all those schmucks waiting in line to throw their change in the bucket. AVI has been used for quick toll applications since its first installation on an Oklahoma highway in 1991. Since then, the prices have consistently dropped, making the solution more accessible to less moneyed entities. Corporations often use AVI to control automobile access into and out of their lots. Authorized employees are issued AVI tags—often windshield stickers with embedded circuits—that interact with readers at lot or garage exit and entry points to raise and lower the access barrier or arm.