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What Is NFC & How Does It Work?

NFC is used daily by our customers for cashless payment, access control, social networking and experiential marketing. It's fast, friendly, engaging and reliable, albeit slightly confusing, that's why we're here to help talk it through.

NFC Plastic Card with exposed NFC chip
NFC Plastic Card with exposed NFC chip

To put NFC into context we have to also look at RFID. Lets take a look at some of the most common questions.

What is NFC?

A short-range wireless connectivity technology, it only works when two devices are brought close together, so unlike Bluetooth (BLE), eavesdropping is almost impossible. What's more, NFC is unique in the way it uses energy. Only one of the two devices needs to be powered for an interaction to take place. The first can power the second, so the second can save its battery for other things - or not have a battery at all. NFC offers both one and two-way communication.

How does NFC work?

NFC-equipped smartphones and other devices can exchange data with each other with a simple tap or wave using a High Frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz radio wave. You may have made a contactless payment with your bank card or even Apple Pay, it's all possible thanks to NFC. Gone are the days of having to scan a barcode or swipe a magnetic stripe, it's all done automagically!

What is RFID?

In contrast RFID enables a one way wireless communication, typically between an unpowered RFID tag and a powered RFID reader. RFID operate across Low Frequency (LF), High Frequency (HF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) frequency bands and offer scan distances from 10cm to 100m. RFID is generally used for Airport baggage handling, road toll collection and asset tracking as it doesn't need a direct line of sight to the reader and can be scanned from much further distances.

What's the difference between RFID and NFC?

RFID or Radio Frequency identification is the technology that underpins NFC and is the process by which items are uniquely identified using radio waves. The waves are created by an antenna which is a linked to a silicon chip. NFC is a specialized subset of RFID. It operates at 13.56 MHz and performs many of the same functions as RFID tags and contactless smartcards.

Fast, seamless, and easy to use, NFC is now available in hundreds of millions of smartphones, tablets, and other consumer electronics, with new devices arriving almost daily.

Three key differences between RFID and NFC

1. NFC is capable of two-way communication and operates in one of three communication modes: Read/Write, Peer-to-Peer (P2P), and Card Emulation

2. NFC is restrained to close proximity communication at typically less than 10cm, hence it's name Near Field Communication

3. You can only scan one NFC tag at a time

Which is the best NFC chip?

The most commonly used NFC chip is an NXP Mifare Ultralight EV1, this supersedes the previous version, NXP Mifare Ultralight. The EV1 version offers 32 bit password protection, counters and an originality signature like the more expensive NXP NTAG213 chip and read range has also been improved over the previous NTAG203 chip. The NTAG213 is also commonly used due to its increased memory capacity. Both have advantages over the other. The main differences are:

1. User memory for Mifare Ultralight EV1 is 48 bytes compared to 144 bytes for NTAG213 . This means the maximum URL length you can encode is 41 and 144 characters respectively

2. NTAG213 is more expensive

3. NTAG213 has a better read range by 1-2cm

What is the NFC Forum?

An organisation formed in January 2005 to develop specifications and test mechanisms that ensure consistent, reliable transactions worldwide across all three modes of NFC. The NFC Forum provides a highly stable framework for extensive application development, seamless interoperable solutions, and security for NFC-enabled transactions.

A key part of the framework governs smartphones with an integrated NFC chip. The guidelines have improved consistency across all handset manufacturers and operating systems. This ensures the same action will occur when an NFC card or NFC enabled media are presented to a smartphone's built in reader. All our NFC cards, stickers, tags and wristbands are manufactured in accordance with NFC Forum guidelines. They have developed the 'N-Mark' (seen at the top of this guide) as an internationally recognised symbol for NFC.

Does my phone have NFC?

Yes probably. The majority of handsets are now NFC enabled and can be used to program an NFC tag or for payment. Apple's iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus received NFC functionality, albeit with limited use so far for Apple Pay only. Take a look at the definitive list of NFC enabled phones in use now and on the horizon, courtesy of NFC World.

What is an NFC tag?

NFC tags can be small stickers, which contain a small unpowered NFC chip. Depending on how the tag is programmed, it can change various settings, launch apps and perform certain actions just by holding your phone close to it.

Where has NFC come from?

  • 2014 Apple introduces iPhone 6 with Apple Pay using NFC technology

  • 2013 Samsung and Visa announce major partnership to develop mobile payments

  • 2012 Wired US is the first mass market publication to feature an NFC enabled advertisement

  • 2012 Sony introduces the "Smart Tags", which use NFC technology to change modes and profiles on a Sony smart phone at close range

  • 2012 Samsung introduces TecTile, a set of NFC stickers and a companion application for Android to read and write TecTile stickers

  • 2011 Google launches Google Wallet

  • 2010 AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile announce Softcard (formerly Isis) mobile payments joint venture

  • 2010 The city of Nice in Southern France launches the "Nice City of contactless mobile" project

  • 2010 Google launches the first Android NFC phone (Nexus S)

  • 2009 NFC Forum releases Peer-to-Peer standards

  • 2006 Nokia launches the first NFC phone (Nokia 6131)

  • 2006 Initial specifications for NFC Forum Tags and for "SmartPoster" records

  • 2004 NXP Semiconductors co-founds the NFC Forum to lead the collaboration with industry stakeholders and help standardize the technology

  • 2002 NXP Semiconductors and Sony co-invent NFC

Who are NXP?

NXP Semiconductors N.V. is a global semiconductor manufacturer headquartered in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

NXP Semiconductors is the leader in innovative high-performance mixed signal solutions which, combined with deep application insight, enable the secure connections needed for a smarter world.

Oomph are an NXP registered partner and ITSO certified to be able to produce smartcards for travel.

As Europes leading supplier of RFID cards and NFC cards, you can be sure Oomph can provide a cost effective and fast solution. We also produce NFC wristbands, labels, stickers and tags too, contact us today.

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