NFC Forum Incorporates Tags into Its Certification Program

By Claire Swedberg

The release of Apple's NFC-enabled iOS 11 platform is helping to drive the growth of NFC deployments that are making an NFC tag certification program important, the association says.

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This week, Near Field Communication (NFC) tag manufacturers have begun taking part in a new certification program provided worldwide by the NFC Forum, to ensure that their NFC chips and inlays conform with specifications—and, if they so choose, to test and certify their performance with mobile handsets and readers. The certification program for tags was added this past Wednesday to the NFC Forum’s existing certification program, and is already under way for manufacturers at its 23 worldwide authorized laboratories.

The NFC Forum is an industry standards organization that promotes the standardization and use of NFC technology. Its 23 labs are located around the world in areas where NFC devices are most commonly manufactured and distributed; 16 are located in Asia, five are in Europe and two are in North America.

The NFC Forum’s Paula Hunter

The tag certification program comes on the heels of the release of iOS 11 from Apple, which, for the first time, includes Core NFC—open NFC functionality that developers are now using to create NFC-based solutions. The program was developed by the NFC Forum’s Internet of Things (IoT) Workgroup, chaired by Apple. (Apple has not responded to a request for comment.)

The NFC Forum already offered its certification program for more than three years to enable manufacturers of NFC-based products to test the conformance and performance of their devices—readers and mobile devices with built-in 13.56 MHz NFC reading functionality compliant with the ISO 14443 standard. About a year ago, the IoT Workgroup began planning for the inclusion of tags in its certification program, according to Paula Hunter, the NFC Forum’s executive director. The workgroup, she says, saw the growing number of NFC applications for connecting items onto IoT-based networks with the use of NFC tags.

That growth in applications is expected to accelerate with the release of NFC in iPhones and other iOS devices. “Adding Apple devices to the mix,” Hunter states, “makes it much more desirable for tag-based applications.”

Tag manufacturers will release more tags for a wider variety of applications, Hunter predicts. Ensuring that the tags perform according to end users’ needs, he adds, will thus become more challenging. Major NFC tag manufacturers have indicated to the NFC Forum that they had a need for such certification for their new products. The certification program provides a template for authorized labs to test a manufacturer’s tags to ensure that each meets the specifications for its particular tag type. There are five different tag types as defined by NFC Forum specifications.

Once testing is complete, the results are shared with the manufacturer and with the NFC Forum, which then reviews those results and posts the certification status of tag products that have completed the process on their website. Manufacturers can also opt for performance testing, which is a more rigorous set of tests designed to ensure that a tag performs as required under specific conditions. While some low-cost tags have very straightforward applications that might not require a distinct level of performance, others might. Increasingly, a variety of companies are employing NFC technology for applications that might require high levels of read accuracy within very specific ranges.

Hunter says tag testing began immediately, with the addition of the tag certification program this week. Announcements will be made by the NFC Forum within days of the tests, she adds, and by manufacturers as they complete those tests and gain certification.

Testing is available to any manufacturers or suppliers of NFC tags, readers, handsets or other NFC-enabled devices. Certification is not an industry requirement, the NFC Forum maintains, but provides companies with additional credibility with their customers. It also helps to ensure that tags are interoperable with a variety of readers or handsets. Companies can request that their tags be tested with specific reader or handset products.

The NFC Forum has experienced an up-swell in inquiries from NFC developers and solutions providers since Apple announced it was opening its NFC functionality to developers, Hunter reports. Beta versions of the iOS devices have been in the hands of some developers for the past several months, she says, and solutions are being built that are intended to benefit consumers and businesses in a variety of industries.

One area in which Hunter expects considerable growth is in non-electronic consumer products. She cites the announcement from Nike that it plans to incorporate NFC technology into its National Basketball Association (NBA) jerseys as of Sept. 29. Any fan who purchased a jersey could tap his or her NFC-enabled smartphone against a chip behind a visible tag at the bottom of the shirt, which would take that person to the NikeConnect app.

The chip’s unique ID number—as well as, in some cases, data stored on the chip—would then be linked to specific content for the player whose jersey that fan had bought. The content includes player statistics, along with scores during and after a game, and provides highlight reels of the team and any interviews held after each game. (Nike has not responded to requests for comment regarding the technology.)

Smart-home deployments are expected to emerge as well, Hunter says. This would provide solutions that might enable individuals to view content or prompt automatic responses in their homes based on the tap of a phone against a tag.