Latest NFC Specs Offer Interoperability to a Growing Market

By Claire Swedberg

The NFC Forum's 2017 Technical Specification offers new specs and modifications to existing ones intended to ensure legacy and future Near Field Communication technologies can interoperate as the number of NFC applications swells.

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The NFC Forum has released 21 new or modified specifications for the development of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology that are aimed at providing reliable standards for the rapidly evolving and growing NFC industry. The NFC Forum’s 2017 Technical Specification comes as the number of NFC-enabled applications is growing in volume and diversity worldwide.

“The main motivation for the enhanced NFC Forum Technical Specification is the further increase of interoperability,” says Paula Hunter, the NFC Forum’s executive director. Three of the specs, she explains, are intended to make it easier for smaller NFC tags on products, such as smartwatches, to operate reliably with existing readers; create a standard for NFC tags that can be certified by the Forum’s certification program; and enable mobile phone manufacturers to update the NFC chips in their devices without changing their existing software.

The NFC Forum’s Paula Hunter

The NFC Forum updates its technical specifications annually in an effort to meet the changing needs of consumers, service providers and technology vendors. The tag specs are intended to define how tags are designed, in order to ensure a successful communication between NFC-enabled devices.

NFC Forum members participate in the writing and updating of specifications, Hunter says, and it is a strategized process that takes six months or more as they identify, develop and rationalize new specifications or changes. Members include NFC chip and device manufacturers, as well as payment companies, network operators and service providers. “We have a very well-rounded group contributing to these specifications,” she states.

Several recent events have been accelerating and diversifying NFC technology deployments. Apple is releasing its iOS 11 version iPhone 7 that will, for the first time, enable open NFC technology use beyond Apple Pay. At the same time, smart watches and other wearable devices are increasingly being made with NFC chips built into them. And a growing number of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions are deploying NFC-based data.

Apple’s opening of its NFC technology use alone has boosted the development of NFC apps. In October 2017, Hunter noted, in an NFC Forum blog posting, that the number of NFC apps in the Apple App Store had doubled from 26 to 54 during a single month. Android, she adds, has more than 250 NFC-based apps that users can download. There are 21 new or modified specifications, but Hunter cites three that may have significant impact on the NFC market and its users.

The Analog Specification modification is designed to ensure that existing NFC readers, such as those built into phones and tablets, will be able to read new NFC tags, while readers will also be able to interrogate legacy NFC tags and cards. The specification includes the field-strength requirements for the RF field, the signal definition for transferring data from one device to the other, and sensitivity requirements to receive data from a remote NFC device.

The modification aims to enable technology to keep up with future hardware changes. For instance, some transit companies are transitioning their NFC-based payment systems to enable payments via smartphones. In that case, instead of buying a ticket with an NFC tag built into it, passengers could buy a digital version of a transit pass and store that data on their phone. Then, they could simply tap their phone against the NFC reader—potentially the same reader that is also scanning paper tickets or cards.

The specification is important as NFC devices become smaller, the NFC Forum reports, with smaller antennas in some cases, such as when smart watches or other wearable devices come with built-in NFC readers. With the specification, technology vendors will be able to provide assurances to customers that their devices will be readable, and that they will read NFC transmissions whether they are the larger, standard-sized versions or very small.

In fact, Hunter says, the NFC industry tests representatives for three antenna sizes: one for smartphones, another used for stationary readers, and a third size for small wearables.

The new testing from the NFC Forum ensures that tags conform to the specs (see NFC Forum Incorporates Tags into Its Certification Program). By using the Tag Certification program to gain NFC Forum Tag certification, a vendor can assure customers that its tags will operate within a variety of applications, including for providing information via a smart poster or accessing loyalty points or coupons at a store.

The third specification that will impact the industry is the NFC Controller Interface Technical Specification Version 2.0. This spec is aimed at technology vendors, such as smartphone manufacturers, and provides a standard to ensure that as new NFC controllers come into the market, they will adapt to the manufacturer’s existing software layers.

In addition, the Logical Link Control Protocol (LLCP) Specification Version 1.3 will enable an automatic linkage to a peer-to-peer communication between NFC readers, only when authorized by a user. The specification’s intention is to reduce the risk of data being intercepted by unauthorized individuals who bring their NFC reader within range of someone’s phone.

The other specifications address different tag types, as well as a standard for record type definitions (RTDs) to identify how data is stored. The NFC Forum Certification program is already applying the latest specifications to its testing services, Hunter reports.

The variety of NFC-based applications is expected to continue growing. Hunter cites the NikeConnect app (downloadable at GooglePlay and iTunes), provided by Nike for National Basketball Association (NBA)-connected jerseys that provide access to game and team content when a phone is tapped against the shirt’s built-in tag.

For iOS devices, a new app known as EndlessID provides access to emergency personnel regarding patient medical information with the tap of a phone against an NFC-enabled wristband. In addition, she predicts more smart-home and smart-home deployments will require NFC technology, such as tags attached to appliances for content access by consumers within the home, or transit information about bus schedules available in public places. “NFC is a very solid market going through huge changes,” Hunter says.

More specification updates can be expected in 2018, Hunter says. “Every year,” she states, “we go through a pretty rigorous review of the specifications, based on member companies’ interest.” NFC Forum special interest groups are also in the process of seeking out specifications requirements, and are learning whether existing specs are being met within such vertical markets as automotive, the IoT, connected homes and transportation.