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RFID Signals Growing Stronger

Touted as one of the technologies that will define the new millennium of computing, RFID is, surprisingly, not a new technology at all. In fact, RFID has existed in one form or another since before the days of World War II.

Touted as one of the technologies that will define the new millennium of computing, RFID is, surprisingly, not a new technology at all. In fact, RFID has existed in one form or another since before the days of World War II.

With that in mind, the entrepreneurial channel CTO must exercise caution to find value in a technology that has become commonplace in certain vertical markets yet still has limited penetration within more mainstream business technology solutions.

To date, real-world implementations of RFID have been relegated to services such as automatic toll-processing or other vertical applications. But advances in the technology and reductions in cost have made it practical for a host of other applications, ranging from employee-tracking to supply chain control.

The primary element of an RFID solution is the RFID tag, a small piece of hardware that uses radio-transmitted codes to uniquely identify itself. RFID tags come in two primary flavors, passive and active.

Active units contain their own power supplies and can transmit identification information either continuously or based on a request or a predetermined schedule. Active RFID solutions are commonly found in cell phones, aircraft transponders and so on. In fact, the bulk of RFID solutions in place use active technology and are quite specialized.

The big opportunity for integrators comes from passive RFID tags, which do not require an internal power source and rely on the minute electrical current induced in the antenna by an incoming radio frequency, providing enough power for the tag to send a response. By design, the response of a passive RFID tag is brief, typically just an ID number. One major advantage is their small size: some measure 0.4mm by 0.4mm and are thinner than a sheet of paper. Passive tags offer size ranges from about 10mm to about 6 meters.

Currently, passive RFID tags run around 40 cents each when purchased in quantity, making the technology economical for large-ticket items but unaffordable for low-cost, mass-quantity solutions. Research firms Gartner and Forrester have predicted that per-unit costs should drop to less than 10 cents within six to eight years.

The typical RFID solution consists of several interrelated components: tags, tag readers, tag programming stations, circulation readers, sorting equipment and tag inventory wands. Those components work in concert via an interface to a centralized data processing system. When properly integrated, RFID tags can be used to control building access, replace time cards, track inventory, track personnel, streamline the shipping process and countless other tasks.

Several vendors have eased the process by assembling complete offerings that are both easy to integrate and manage. Arguably, the most difficult element is deciding on a market to pursue. One significant area to explore is the IT security market, where both needs and cost savings have created interest in RFID-based solutions. By combining RFID-based access cards with biometrics technology, solution providers can implement secure access to buildings or information systems. This combination of verifiable access could also be integrated into employee location and time-tracking applications that use RFID-equipped ID badges and scanning equipment.

One industry leader is Everett, Wash.-based Intermec Technologies, which offers a complete suite of biometrics and RFID products including pilot kits branded under the Intellitag name. Another player is Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies, which is applying RFID to pallet management and military uses. Elsewhere, Oracle, Redwood Shores, Calif., and Intel, Santa Clara, Calif., have partnered to create software and hardware to ease the deployment of RFID at the infrastructure level. And Sun Microsystems, Santa Clara, offers everything from RFID tags, meters and middleware to testing facilities and design assistance. Some words of caution: There are major security issues surrounding RFID technology, ranging from privacy concerns to interception and forging of signals. On the implementation side, solution providers must take stock of what information needs to be contained on a tag and then offer an encryption scheme to protect the information. In most cases, passive RFID tags will transmit little more than an Electronic Product Code, limiting the real value of the information to the equivalent of a bar code. But in cases where additional information may be contained, such as employee information, access codes or billing information, integrators must take additional steps to protect the data. Luckily, the inherent limited range of most passive tags helps to avoid interception of any coded signals.

What's more, most RFID vendors include encryption schemes that further help to protect data. Another simple means of securing RFID-tracked products is to use diminutive tags, which can be hidden easily within a product or access card. That helps to prevent unauthorized swapping of tags, a real threat when it comes to retail product tracking and automated sales processing.

As RFID prices drop, the technology will become more viable for businesses of any size. Standards adoption that allow competing vendors' products to interact will also fuel growth. The latest proposed standard, RFID Gen2, already has backing from several vendors. Channel CTOs will find the real trick is to pick a unique way to offer RFID solutions, perhaps starting with a vertical market and then advancing the technology into other markets.

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