Issue 25, October 2010

Near-field communication: is everything tickety-boo?

17 January 2011
By Ralph Adam (sd324@gmail.com)

Tickets, please: we think of technology as providing instant solutions for every aspect of life. Take ticketing for example...

Tickets, please!

We think of technology as providing instant solutions for every aspect of life. Take ticketing as an example.

Traditional card and paper tickets were used successfully from the early days of public transport - until superseded by automation in the late-1980s. Since then, transport operators, encouraged by Government, have been keen to move to paperless ticketing, initially through the introduction of smart cards, in the hope of benefiting from better financial control, queue reduction and improved passenger monitoring.

A British catalyst for this was Transport for London (TFL) which followed the massive success of Hong Kong’s Octopus card with the introduction of Oyster. Big savings are claimed through improved passenger management and control, reduction of fraud and the ability to hotlist lost or stolen cards.

The card’s the thing

We use cards for everything, with the need to carry a different one for every activity (banking, shops, libraries, clubs, work access etc.). This can be annoying. One solution is to take advantage of all the processing power in a single card divided into separate accounts. Or, even better - one device, (mobile phones - everyone’s favourite bit of technology) to carry all the applications. That is the attraction of Near Field Communication (NFC).

What is NFC?

NFC was developed in 2004 as an open-platform technology combining short-range high-frequency wireless communication with contactless identification and interconnection. It allows for the exchange of data between devices placed within roughly 10cm (4”) of one another.

While NFC has many possible applications (such as access to online digital content in libraries, instant coupon downloads, ordering of meals in restaurants and healthcare monitoring) it has been widely promoted as a means of contactless payment, especially for e-ticketing. At first, it seemed full of magical promise – with unlimited uses for simplifying business travel, bill payment and the interconnection of devices. There have been many trials meeting with near-universal enthusiasm. Only recently, analysts were predicting widespread use of NFC by 2010. But little has happened. Why?

Is it a mirage?

Tests so far have been small-scale, often with little attempt to match user’s needs and wants. Practical problems abound – not least, the lack of (cheap) compatible phones outside Japan. While NFC works well for fare-collection or parking payments, it is not so simple to ‘mate’ different manufacturers’ phones in order to split a restaurant bill. That is an interoperability issue. Then there is branding and loyalty – which of the virtual cards on your mobile will you use to pay a shopping bill? How will the all-important logos be presented on-screen? Whose will have priority – or will they revolve? And who will have ‘ownership’ of customers? Can mobile networks cope with having many simultaneous users within a small area?

The big stumbling block is the banks. Theirs is the responsibility for authentification, certification (testing each application against every phone type) and the financial side of NFC use. We also need assurances by banks and telephone operators as to who will be responsible for cash placed on virtual cards if a hand-set is stolen.

NFC has many potential benefits and those who try it love it. But, as with all new technology, there are snags to iron out. Paper tickets were so much simpler!

Related forum discussions
forum comment To start a discussion topic about this article, please log in or register.