NFC – Near Field Communication introduction

The latest project we have been commissioned to participate in is very much R&D in nature, and it involves NFC (Near Field Communications). NFC is a contactless (short-range) point-to-point technology based on short range radio frequencies. It is similar in that sense to Bluetooth, but differentiates itself in some key areas we will describe later.

NFC was invented in 2004 by NXP Semiconductors and Sony in order to take the RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) standard from the 80’s a step further to global distribution. The NFC Forum was setup in order to gather all potential stakeholders and provide a unified standard of contactless communication. The NFC Forum now has about 140 members amongst which are mobile phone manufacturers, electronic components manufacturers, mobile operators, banking corporations, etc. The full list is here.

Even though NFC operates at a lower speed than Bluetooth (424 kbit/s vs 2.1 Mbit/s), its extremely low range (a few centimeters vs a few meters for Bluetooth) makes it difficult (but not impossible!) for anyone to intercept communications over the air. Contrary to Bluetooth, there is no need to pair NFC devices; they just need to be close to each other to communicate! As a result of its low range, NFC is only a point-to-point network device.

This one to one relationship allows for a specific mode of operation where one NFC device doesn’t need to be powered to be read by another; this allows for the use of passive smartcards; it should be pointed out that in that case, the powered device NFC will use more power than Bluetooth. Also, despite being a contactless technology, NFC devices still require being close to each other to interact due to their low range.

NFC chips can be found on a number of mobile phones already in the market or in development (check this page for a relatively complete list). Using NFC chips in a phone allows for data transfer between phones with both active chips.

But passive NFC chips are more widespread, and the most popular and widely used examples of passive NFC devices are Smartcards, used mostly for payments or to hold personal data. For instance, Oyster cards in the London Tube, payment cards like Barclays Connect, or more interestingly sQuid, an alternative way of paying for goods that has been trialed in a few places in Britain.

NFC technology can also be found in posters around cities, where by simply “touching” the right area on the poster, some data is transferred to your phone; more information here about Smart Posters can be found here.

The project we are involved in with NFC includes payment technologies, and we will be posting about this at a later stage, so stay tuned!

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