What Is RFID, Anyway?

Some people don’t seem to have a clue what radio frequency identification is, and even some experts differ.
Published: July 27, 2006

This week, my opinion piece addressed the growing number of articles that claim some new technology spells the demise of radio frequency identification (see Perfect Alternatives to RFID?). I didn’t attack anyone personally, but there’s at least one editor of a newsletter that regurgitates press releases that keeps sounding the death knell of RFID.

I’m glad I didn’t criticize him because it seems even experts in RFID can disagree on exactly what it is. I got an email from John Stevens, chairman of Visible Assets, the company that has been the chief promoter of the RuBee protocol. John took issue with my characterization of RuBee as RFID.

He writes: “In fact RuBee is far similar to 802 in functionality over RFID except it is slower and was created for visibility . . . I do not think you would consider 802.11 or 802.15. [RuBee] and 802 are all in the transceiver family they are not transponders. RFID uses backscatter mode; [RuBee] and 802 are both radiating transceivers.”

I define RFID as anything that involves using radio waves to remotely and identify an object, person or location. The method of communicating—whether the device is reflecting energy via backscatter or broadcasting a signal—is irrelevant, as is the amount of memory, processing power and other capabilities of the device. An airplane is an airplane, whether it is used to transport cargo or people and whether it is a simple glider or a jumbo jet.

John says that based on my definition a laptop could be considered RFID. A laptop does contain a unique identifier—its Internet protocol address—and most can now communicate via radio waves. But laptops are not used to identify objects, people or places remotely, so I wouldn’t consider them to be RFID. But if you bolted a laptop onto a container and used it to identify the container and track its location then I would absolutely consider the laptop to be a very expensive RFID tag.

John is not convince and I’m sure others might disagree with me as well. Which is why I’ll be a little more careful about criticizing those who don’t know RFID when they see it. The term is open to a lot of interpretation.