Part I – What Is NFC? [The Basics]

Chances are you’ve already come into contact with NFC technology in some way, shape or form. From proximity cards and credit cards to computers and mobile phones, NFC is becoming more prevalent in our everyday lives. In fact, NFC technology is one of the fastest-growing technologies on the planet with growth projections predicting that NFC-enabled devices will increase at a rate of 65% per annum and be installed on anywhere from 1.2 to 2.1 billion units by 2017-2018.

So in light of this, we thought it might be useful to do a series of blog posts to better explain what NFC is, how it works, and develop an understanding of its advantages and disadvantages. We’ll also take a look at a number of current use cases and how the technology might be used to improve the business of asset tracking both now and into the future.

What is NFC?

NFC stands for Near-Field Communications and is at its most basic a form of short-range wireless communications technology. Its roots can be traced back to RFID but it really only started making headlines in the early 2000’s when Sony, Philips and Nokia established a forum to develop communication standards in order to accelerate the adoption of the technology. Believe it or not but the first device to include built-in NFC was a Nokia 6131 mobile phone and only in 2007.

How does NFC work?

NFC uses electromagnetic induction to transfer a piece of data, such as a contact, a code, some text or a web address between two NFC-enabled devices that are within close proximity of each other. Typically this distance is less than a few centimetres and often requires a direct touch or ‘tap’ as per the commonly used moniker today for contactless payment systems.

Unlike Bluetooth or Wifi, NFC devices can automatically connect or ‘pair’ without requiring manual configuration by users. This simplicity and ease-of-use is one of the reasons why NFC technology applications are exploding in growth and innovation.

What are the operating modes of NFC devices?

NFC devices are unique in that they support three modes of operation:

1. Reader/writer mode
2. Peer-to-peer mode
3. Card emulation mode

We’ll share a little more about these modes below.

How does NFC differ from RFID?

NFC has its origins in RFID. In fact, NFC is essentially a specialised form of HF RFID, operating at the same 13.56 MHZ frequency. But thanks in large part to the protocols established by the NFC forum, NFC has turned the short range limitations of the HF RFID operating frequency into a unique and compelling advantage making the technology a popular choice for secure contactless payment systems and other simple data exchange applications.

Like RFID, NFC devices can be either active or passive. A passive NFC device is usually in the form of a tag. It is battery-less and will simply transmit data to an authorised active device [such as a smartphone or POS terminal] which wakes them up when they come into close range [reader/writer mode]. Examples of passive RFID devices can be in the form of access or proximity cards or NFC tags on smart advertisement and posters.

An active NFC-enabled device, such as a smart phone, can both send and read information. In this way, NFC-enabled smartphones can exchange information with other compatible devices or phones [peer-to-peer] simply by tapping the two devices together. Active NFC devices can even be used to write information to a passive NFC tag if the active device is authorised to make such changes.

NFC-enabled smartphones can also behave in both active and passive modes. For example, as a secure contactless payment method, the smartphone would be in passive mode [card emulation] with the POS terminal or checkout behaving as the active device. Alternatively, when the same NFC-enabled smartphone is scanning a passive NFC tag on a poster or an asset to retrieve data, it would be behaving in active mode.

Stay tuned!

Whilst the accessibility and ease-of-use of NFC appears to make it a compelling option for tagging assets and collecting data on them, there are, however, some important limitations to consider before getting too excited about this new technology. So stay tuned for next week’s blog post where we take a deeper look at advantages and disadvantages of NFC for asset management.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about NFC or wish to discuss whether your project is suitable for NFC or RFID technology, please reach out to an assetDNA application consultant on +61 (0)2 9998 9000 or We’d love to hear from you!