NFC implementations on campus have been anything but perfect. In fact, between the fractured nature of NFC adoption as a technology, the relatively few university-specific NFC pilots and the rejection by Apple, NFC is far from making the grade.
Many would argue, however, that there is merit in what NFC could do for a college campus from a technical standpoint. But with NFC’s failure to launch seeming more of a rule than an exception, what other option is there?
Bluetooth Low Energy. Also known as Bluetooth Smart, or BLE for sort, this emerging technology is quickly positioning itself as a direct comparison, if not outright competitor with NFC.
“Physical access control has been a stale industry and this is one of the more exciting things to come around,” says John Fenske, vice president of product marketing for physical access control at HID Global.
From a physical access control and identity standpoint, Bluetooth Low Energy represents a viable, campus-ready solution because it’s already in nearly every recent model handset and computer. In fact, the specification has been included on iPhones and Android handsets dating back to 2012.
Herein lies the first advantage that Bluetooth Low Energy has over NFC. For the protocol to already reside in a majority of smart phones means that an overwhelming number of college students – perhaps the most significant smart phone user base – means that BLE could make a smooth transition to the college campus.
As an added bonus for universities, Bluetooth Low Energy doesn’t carry the same complexity that has long mired the NFC ecosystem, when it comes to placing credentials on handsets. Campus officials don’t have to worry about getting agreements in place with all the mobile operators to gain access to the secure element. BLE enables credentials to be more easily placed in handsets.
“The barriers to using NFC have been high,” explains Fenske. “If you’re looking at using a phone with NFC and you want to put information on the secure element, you have to go through the mobile operator and they charge for that access.”
In the higher education sector, paying extra for these services is anything but ideal. With Bluetooth Low Energy applications, however, information can be embedded elsewhere in the handset. HID or its dealers will have online portals where enterprises can provision access, he explains. It’s reasonable to assume that Blackboard and other campus vendors could do the same.
But here’s where BLE poses a challenge. NFC can typically be read from less than an inch away, while Bluetooth can transmit at a distance of 10 to 15 feet. This longer read range could be problematic when a student tries to, for example, access their dorm room.
There’s a thin line between constraint and opportunity, however, as HID is currently working on this issue with a gesture-based activation system.
So when the student arrives at the door to their room, well within the 10-15 foot Bluetooth radius, they simply rotate their phone in a specified manner – like turning a doorknob – to activate the lock. This solution simply leverages the device’s built-in accelerometer, which normally controls screen orientation, as an added authenticator.
The long-held concern with Bluetooth has been the protocol’s supposed lack of security, but new specifications for BLE include 128-bit encryption. The ability to lock down transmitted data in this way could make BLE an ideal fit for the myriad of transactions that students conduct on each day, from the line at the dining hall, to perimeter door access at the rec center, to making a purchase at the campus coffee shop.
So while NFC continues to struggle, packing on a “freshmen 15” of shortcomings, Bluetooth Low Energy may be poised to jump to the head of the class. Only time will tell whether this will be the case, but for now BLE is making the grade.