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The Great RFID Debate: HF or UHF?

With interest in item-level tagging on the rise, end users are trying to figure out whether to use high-frequency or ultrahigh frequency tags on individual products. Millions of dollars ride on the outcome.
By Mark Roberti
Mar 27, 2006Not too long ago, the radio frequency identification industry was split between those who supported ultrahigh frequency protocols created under the aegis of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and those who supported the Electronic Product Code UHF protocol developed under the aegis of EPCglobal. Eventually, the two sides came together and created a second-generation EPC UHF protocol, and all was good. Now, the industry is facing a new split—this time, over what frequency to use for item-level tagging.

Some high-frequency RFID tag vendors firmly believe HF offers many advantages for item-level tagging. They say HF works better around water and metal, that it penetrates materials better and that it is easier to define the read field with HF than with UHF. (With UHF, radio waves can bounce off objects farther away, causing the interrogator to pick up tags you didn't want to read).

On the other hand, there are makers of UHF technology who feel UHF can work just fine for item-level tagging. On March 29, at noon EST, one of those companies—Impinj—will make the case for UHF item-level tagging in an RFID Journal webinar entitled Item-Level Tagging Using UHF Gen 2. Judging by the large number of people who have preregistered, there is a lot of interest in this subject.

This promises to be a major issue for the RFID industry, much bigger and more important than the split over ISO and EPC UHF protocols. Why? Two reasons. First, end users overwhelmingly backed the EPC protocol, at least in the United States, while in Europe, few companies adopted the ISO 18000-6A and -6B protocols. So vendors were faced with the choice of either jumping on board the effort to create the Gen 2 EPC protocol, or being left out of the market.

There is no such unity of views in the end-user community when it comes to HF or UHF. In the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, Pfizer is using HF tags in its pilot, in which it is tagging all bottles of Viagra in the United States this year. Peggy Staver, Pfizer's director of trade product integrity, tells me the company is very happy with the decision. The system works well and is what many pharmacies feel is best for them, because they need to read a lot of unique items at close range.

Purdue Pharma is using UHF tags on bottles of OxyContin shipped to Wal-Mart. Purdue chose UHF because that's what Wal-Mart wanted to use. The system works well—Purdue and its supply chain partners are now reading 100 percent of the tags on bottles of pills.

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