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Sports Fans Use RFID to Pay and Play

A group of season ticket holders at Atlanta's Philips Arena can use RFID-enabled cell phones to download video clips and pictures of players—and, eventually, to make purchases.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Dec 16, 2005A select group of sports fans at Atlanta's Philips Arena can now use cell phones to do more than call friends to give them play-by-plays. They can also use them to download video clips and pictures of their favorite players—and, starting next month, even buy hot dogs and peanuts. Approximately 250 season ticket holders of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team have joined a trial of near field communication (NFC) technology. This technology trial uses radio frequency identification to enable phones (and other small personal electronic devices, such as PDAs) to make electronic payments, download or exchange data, or perform other applications.

The trial is underway. Approximately 100 fans have already received an NFC-enabled phone (model 3220) from Nokia, which they can use to download news, graphics (such as pictures of players or wallpaper images) and promotional video clips from specially branded "smart posters" throughout the arena. Passive RFID tags are embedded inside the posters. When a fan holds an NFC-enabled phone within a few inches of the poster, an RFID interrogator embedded in the phone reads a special URL from the tag. The phone's Web browser then opens that URL, allowing the user to select content. This URL is not made available to the general public, so the pilot's participants are the only ones with access to this content. The payment functionality—which will enable fans to use their phones to make purchases by holding them up to RFID payment terminals at the concessionaries—will not be available until January 2006. The trial will last throughout the Thrasher and Hawks seasons.

"The immediate reaction from our fans, when we introduced this trial, was one of shock," says David Lee, vice president of business development for Atlanta Spirit, the parent company of the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Thrashers and Philips Arena. "They were shocked that, first, the technology is available to them now and, second, that they would have access to things that are unique and exclusive to them.

"Our goal is to give our fans ways to expand upon their experience with us while they're in the arena, and even outside our four walls," he says. "And we're getting direct feedback from the fans. They're saying 'this is great, and this is what I'd also like to see,' and this is helping us with our development."

The Nokia phones are fitted with a shell containing Philips' NFC chip (enabling the phone to transmit and receive data over radio frequency) and Smart MX microchip (which securely stores payment data and is used to process financial transactions). The participants must have a Visa credit card account through a Chase bank in order to use the phones to make payments.

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