Defining RFID by any other name


by Andy Kowl

After covering RFID nearly seven years, I think it’s time we define what RFID is.

Yesterday I spoke with a gentleman whose company has RFID in its name. He explained his products “might not be the same RFID I’m thinking of,” not being supply chain oriented.

He meant what the Smart Card Council means. Their glossary defines RFID as “used to transmit information about objects . . . most commonly associated with tags used in supply chain.” They in no way want you thinking their people-identifying, RFID smart cards are RFID.

There are those who insist passive, UHF Gen 2 RFID is the only technology which should have that moniker. Some advocate this to reinforce their RFID position, some to deny their association with RFID entirely.

Longtime readers know this has been a side theme of ours for years. Finally, once and for all, let’s be clear:

RFID is a technology which transmits a unique IDentifier over a Radio Frequency.

Of course, as we have pointed out, that would include your cell phone. Your phone number is your unique ID and you know it uses various RF frequencies. Deal with it.

The RFID Journal glossary defines it as “Any method of identifying unique items using radio waves.” “Items,” not “objects” like the Smart Carders write—and I feel qualified to assert they mean to include people. Still, Journal friends, maybe it’s time to drop the “items.”

There is a reason this is becoming more important than ever: there are more and more technologies that rely on unique identifiers which travel by radio wave.

The world is building a global grid, no news here; but the whole enterprise is pointless if you don’t have unique IDs. I’ve spoken with sensor engineers who never give RFID a thought. But what good are sensors, when deployed over a network, if you cannot tell precisely which sensor has been activated? Of course each sensor has a unique ID in those cases (i.e. the one on the 12th floor in the west wing), and if it is transmitted by RF, see definition above.

The Internet of Things sure won’t be using just one wavelength.

RFID this!

Yesterday I heard another great example for this definition conundrum. In speaking with Rich Herpers of Colder Products Co., the St. Paul, Minn.-based experts in “quick coupling” (grow up, you in the back!) he told me of one of the coolest (sorry) RFID products I’ve heard of lately.

Colder has precision molded fittings for medical devices with an RFID tag on one end and an RFID reader-chip on the piece that fits to it. “RFID enabled couplings with added electronics that measure and identify critical parameters. The IdentiQuik Series of couplings utilizes RFID technology to automatically identify fluid characteristics and capture data from point-of-origin to point of use.”

No “objects,” “items” or people being identified; but it sure sounds like a perfect use of RFID to me—possibly even life-saving.

Making sense of the smart network

We are already combining all of these technologies and more. Soon we will have more wireless smart grids coming our way, most all ID-dependent. We must expand our definitions today.

So if you are going to use technology with unique IDs, embrace “RFID,” man! It serves us all poorly if we must scatter in different directions, each in our own RF camp.

I still enjoy arguing with folks who deny their technology which transmits unique IDs via RF, is actually RFID. At the beginning of 2006, shortly after the NFC Forum formed, they refused to talk to us because they wanted nothing to do with RFID. The Smart Card Council used to hand out literature that said RFID was not an intelligent technology. That bothered me; and I was sure to let them know. Wonder if that info is still out there. . .

There are many to this day who suffer from RFID-avoidance. I’ve seen some RFID purveyors with battery assisted tags who market one year as “active RFID,” the next as “wireless ID,” then back again.

Sure we know about the privacy groups and we’ve written about the gullible young public who believe “we” (whoever that is) want to secretly implant chips in their brains. (Or did I miss that meeting?) Kidding aside, we take privacy seriously and so should you. It’s just that RFID, more often than not, increases personal security and safety.

We must do a better job of clearing up the confusion around RFID, no doubt about it. There is nothing inherently bad or evil about those four letters, though scare-mongers have tried to hijacked them.

I mean how many watching those thousands of TV commercials for cellular networks knows what 3G is? Gimme a break—I don’t even really know what it is and it’s on my phone! But I do know 3G is promoted proudly andprominently as something everyone should want.

I knew a retailer who, when merchandise didn’t sell well, would put it on a big display and raise the price. Maybe that is what must be done to make RFID as desirable as 3G.