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SF's Transit System Offers Commuters Fast Access to Subways and Sandwiches

The Bay Area Rapid Transit launched a technology trial allowing subway commuters to use RFID-enabled cell phones to ride trains and purchase food at local Jack in the Box restaurants.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 31, 2008As of today, more than 200 San Francisco area commuters will be able to use Sprint cell phones to pay fares on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system, as well as purchase a meal at any local Jack in the Box restaurant, through a trial of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology that will run through the end of May.

"This is truly a landmark development," proclaimed James Fang, BART's board director, during a news conference and demonstration of the system, held Tuesday in a downtown BART subway station. Fang claims this is the first time NFC—a wireless technology that employs a high-frequency (HF) RFID protocol to exchange data securely through RFID modules embedded in electronic devices such as cell phones—is being tested both in a mass transit system and in a retail environment.

Linton Johnson, BART's chief spokesperson, uses an NFC-enabled Samsung phone to pay for food.

Fang says subway turnstiles throughout the BART system are already equipped to accept transit fares from NFC phones. That's because RFID interrogators were installed in the turnstiles in 2006, as part of BART's EZ Rider program that issues RFID-enabled plastic cards to frequent BART commuters, who then create a debit account linked to the ID number encoded to the inlay. As each EZ Rider commuter approaches a turnstile, that person holds the card (the size of a credit card), up to the reader to initiate the fare transaction and open the gate. The EZ Rider program began in mid-2006 and has been well received. According to BART, 20,000 commuters currently use the cards.

The 230 participants in the NFC trial—all existing EZ Rider members and Sprint account holders who volunteered for the program—will utilize NFC-enabled phones in the same way they used the cards. The participants are being provided Samsung NFC-enabled handsets, which they began picking up yesterday at Sprint stores in San Francisco. To initialize their payment accounts, the participants remove the SIM card from their old phone and place it in their NFC-enabled handset, then enter payment information—either a debit or credit account—into an online registration form created by ViVOTech, a Santa Clara firm that is also providing the software to power the NFC application inside each phone.

Once registered, each participant receives an ID number that they key into the phone to open the payment account application on the handset. They then go through a series of steps to load the payment accounts for BART—and, if they choose, Jack in the Box—to the phone's NFC module, provided by NXP Semiconductors.

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