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Slippery Rock Adds RFID to Student Cell Phones

The Pennsylvania university is giving out passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags to attach to mobile phones, allowing attendees to pay for a range of goods and services, both on campus and off.
By Claire Swedberg
When a student uses the cell-phone NFC option, merchants enter the amount of the transaction and the student "taps" the phone within an inch of the reader, entering a PIN to verify identity. The readers have an Internet connection to a server hosted by Heartland, which verifies the account number of the tag holder, as well as the payment amount, before authorizing the transaction. Once the purchase is complete, the cost is deducted from the owner's account. Welsch doubts the system will save time on each transaction, but predicts its convenience will be an incentive for students to obtain the tag. "Certainly it is easy technology," he notes, "and the tag always stays in the consumer's hand—in this case, it's a phone."

According to Welsch, initial interest from Slippery Rock-area merchants has been enthusiastic. Heartland has built the technology and has also provided RFID tags for some university summer-school students. During the fall semester, it is prepared to distribute the tags to all students. The company is also installing 122 readers in vending, laundry and photocopy machines, as well as at on-campus retail facilities.

Although the vendor declines to disclose the price Slippery Rock pays for the RFID tags, Welsch points out that RFID cards and tags typically cost about $1 apiece. The university will make the cards and tags available for free to all its students.

"In the focus-group research, we found that students considered their cell phone a device they would always have with them, and which they expected greater use from," Smith says. "Originally, we thought of embedding the tags in the phone, but decided to give the plastic card [the existing ID card with mag-strip and photo] and a separate chip with the intent to attach to the phone." (Technology is not yet available or affordable that would allow the tag to replace the card.) Students use the picture on the card, for example, to verify their identity.

Smith says he already has the chip attached to his own phone, and fully expects most of the faculty and students to do the same. "We already know students are incredibly excited about this," he states. "We found students want to be able to make a statement about Slippery Rock [and its technology]." By using their phones to make payments in public places, Smith adds, they are making that statement to students of other public universities, who must dig cash or credit cards out of their wallets.

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