NFC Near Field Communication Tutorial

- a summary overview or tutorial of Near Field Communications, detailing what is NFC and its technology.

There is a growing number of applications where a form of very short range wire-less communications is needed. One technology that can meet this need is called Near Field Communications or NFC.

NFC technology is being incorporated in many new applications. Its short range is a key to its operation and success. Operating over only short distances, this gives a large degree of inherent security.

NFC, near field communications is a non-contact technology and as such does not require physical electrical contact to be made. This means that cards using NFC do not need to be inserted into a reader with all the problems of poor contact that are present when cards can be mistreated and used anywhere.

What is NFC?

NFC is a standards-based technology used to provide short range wireless connectivity technology that carry secure two-way interactions between electronic devices. Communications are established in a simple way, not requiring set-up by users as in the case of many other wirelsss communications. As such NFC enables users to perform contactless transactions, access digital content and connect electronic devices by touching devices together.

NFC near field communication provides contactless communication up to distances of about 4 or 5 centimetres. In this way there communications are inherently more secure because devices normally only come into contact and hence communication when the user intends this.

As no physical connectors are used with NFC near field communication, the connection is more reliable and does not suffer problems of contact wear, corrosion and dirt experienced by systems using physical connectors.

NFC utilises inductive-coupling, at a frequency of 13.56 MHz - a licence free allocation in the HF portion of the radio spectrum.

NFC is a form of RFID, but it has a specific set of standards governing its operation, interface, etc. This means that NFC equipment, and elements from a variety of manufacturers can be used together. The NFC standards determine not only the contactless operating environment, but also the data formats and data transfer rates.

NFC applications

NFC technology has evolved from a combination of contactless identification and interconnection technologies including RFID and it allows connectivity to be achieved very easily over distances of a few centimetres. Simply by bringing two electronic devices close together they are able to communicate and this greatly simplifies the issues of identification and security, making it far easier to exchange information. In this way it is anticipated that Near Field Communications, NFC technology will allow the complex set-up procedures required for some longer range technologies to be avoided.

Near field communication NFC lends itself ideally to a whole variety of applications. These include:

  • Mobile phones, PDAs, etc
  • Personal computers
  • Check-out cash registers or "point-of-sale" equipment
  • Turnstiles
  • Vending machines
  • Parking meters
  • ATMs
  • Applications around the office and house, e.g. garage doors, etc

A further application that was proposed was that NFC connections could be used to configure the connection between two wireless devices. All that was required to configure them to operate together wirelessly would be to bring them together to effect the NFC "connection". This would initiate the a set-up procedure, communication could take place over the NFC interface to configure the longer range wireless device such as Bluetooth, 802.11 or other relevant standard. Once set up the two devices could operate over the longer range allowed by the second communication system.

NFC near field communication is ideally placed to provide a link with the contactless smart card technology that is already used for ticketing and payment applications. It is broadly compatible with the existing standards that have been set in place. Accordingly it is quite possible that NFC enabled devices could be used for these applications as well.

There are many other applications for near field communications, NFC. These could include general downloading data from digital cameras or mobile phones, as well as any other data communication required between two devices.

Beginnings and NFC Forum

Near Field Communication Technology, NFC has many of its roots in the RFID business. Some of the basic ideas came directly from RFID work that had been previously undertaken. Now Sony and Phillips have taken the lead and jointly developed the technology. It follows on from their proprietary smart card protocols and can be seen as an initiative to move forward the contact-less ticketing and payment applications that are seen as the next stage in this market. The standard for the technology was approved as an ISO/IEC standard on December 8 2003, having been approved earlier as an ECMA standard. The next stage in the standardisation process came when Nokia, Sony, and Phillips formed the NFC forum on 18th March 2004.

The NFC forum grew quickly and in 2008 there were over 150 members comprising manufacturers, applications developers, financial services institutions, etc.

In June, 2006, the NFC Forum formally outlined the architecture for NFC technology. In August, 2006, the NFC Forum released the first four Forum-approved specifications. These NFC specifications set in place a "road map" to enable interested parties to create their own products.

Differences between NFC and other wireless technologies

NFC is a technology that is distinct from other wireless technologies, not only in the technology used, but also the applications envisaged.

  • Bluetooth:   Although both Bleutooth and NFC can be used to transfer data, Bluetooth has been designed to transfer data over much greater distances. NFC is designed to be close proximity only.
  • Wi-Fi / IEEE 802.11:   Wi-Fi is designed for local area networks, and is not a short range peer to peer technology.
  • RFID:   Although RFID is very similar to NFC in many respects, RFID is a much broader technology. NFC is a specific case which is defined by standards enabling it to be interoperable.

In view of its parameters, NFC lends itself to particular applications, making it ideal for use in areas where other forms of wireless communication would be unsuitable.

By Ian Poole

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