Monday, 11 January 2016

Is NFC or BLE for Access Control?

A few years ago Near Field Communications (NFC), sometimes referred to as Radio Frequency Identification(RFID) richer cousin, was touted as the solution to the hotels failing mag-stripe keycard system problem. However, due to a number of factors such as a lack of NFC global standards/specifications/protocols, and a slow uptake from mobile phone manufacturers to include NFC in new phones, it hasn’t taken off as many had predicted. So is BLE the solution the access control industry has been looking for?

Does NFC deserve a run in access control?

After years of speculation, Apple’s announcement in mid 2014 that it would include NFC in its iPhone6, got many in the security industry excited that this would be the NFC access control tipping point. This excitement was soon dissipated a few weeks later however, when Apple announced that its NFC would only be limited to mobile payments. At the time there were also many online rumours that Apple were in talks with HID global and other access control providers to deliver NFC access control solutions, but none of these rumours have come to public announcements. More recently Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) has become the flavour of the month in smartlocks, with Starwood Hotels rolling out BLE locks, and many start-ups in the US offering deadbolt attachment smartlocks for the smart home with BLE. Like any new technology, there has been some teething problems at Starwood and Hilton with many guests taking to online forums/comments sections to complain about the inconsistencies, pairing problems, and time-delays in getting the BLE locks to work.

NFC vs BLE - who will win?

Don’t write NFC in access control off just yet – NFC has been leading the way in the payment industry in Europe and Asia for a number of years now, and is growing in availability in the US - your local supermarket, train station, taxi or coffee shop probably supports NFC right now.

More recently NFC is getting a good run in the smartphone digitized wallets of Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Wallet.

Analysts such as Frost and Sullivan, Deloitte and Juniper have predicted that by 2017 that 1 in 3 mobile phones will have NFC, or around 2.1 billion handsets. Also as the price of NFC tags come down (e.g you can buy wristband for under $1USD, and stickers/cards for 30 cents, and a NFC ring for under $20USD) it makes economic sense for hotels to adopt NFC access control solutions so that a variety of digital check-in and traditional check-in options in addition to digital key options can be offered to guests. You can’t exactly take a RFID keycard or your smartphone into a swimming pool right now, and Bluetooth beacons are still way to expensive and unwieldy at $20-$30 each.

Technological advancements in Android Beam and NFC P2P may also see NFC become the flavour of the month again in access control, offering greater security and functions, especially as companies like Alibaba and Apple carve out new NFC features. For example Alibaba are experimenting with new ways to pay with NFC (i.e facial recognition selfie pay) and Apple is experimenting with sending money over iMessage and NFC (e.g via phone calls, emails and calendar invitations).

So who will win the day in access control, will it be NFC or BLE? Only time will tell!

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