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Understanding RFID Standards

Last week, the International Organization for Standard- ization took a major step forward on proposed RFID standards for supply chain applications. This guide explains why they are important to your company.
Feb 16, 2003—Feb. 17, 2003 - It's long been said that radio frequency identification is a technology with enormous potential, but that it has been held back by two things: The lack of international standards and the cost of the tag. The Auto-ID Center has been getting a lot of attention of late because of the progress it's making with technology partners to lower the cost of the tag. Less attention has been focused on the progress being made on standards.

Last week, an important subcommittee of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) approved the final committee draft ballots for four proposed standards for the way RFID tags communicate with interrogators or readers (this is called the "air interface"). There was also a technical demonstration of tags and readers based on ISO 18000-6, a critical standard for RFID because it covers the ultra-high frequency band (UHF) which will be used in the supply chain.

The standards process is complex and there are a wide number of standards, proposed standards and possible de facto standards that relate to RFID. The aim of this article is to help businesspeople understand what the standards are, how they fit together and where they might be applied. We will focus most heavily on the ISO standards that relate to the supply chain because that is where companies are most eager to use RFID. At the end of this article we'll look at the Auto-ID Center's technology, which aims to be a de facto standard.

First, a little background about ISO and the standards process. ISO has three technical committees dealing with RFID. TC104 is focused on freight containers, TC204 on road informatics, and TC122 on packaging. ISO has formed a Joint Technical Committee (JTC1) with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), an international body that publishes standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies.

The joint technical committee has many subcommittees. Subcommittee 31 (SC31) deals with automatic data capture technology. It has four work groups. WG1 deals with symbology (bar code standards), WG2 with data capture, WG3 with conformance and WG4 with RFID. ISO also has a very specific process -- stages with fixed time frames -- for moving from a proposal to a final standard. The stages are outlined in the chart above.

What's often confusing about standards is they don't just deal with the technology -- the way tags and readers communicate, the power of the reader and so on. They also deal with data content (the way data is organized or formatted), conformance (ways to test that products meet the standard) and applications (how standards are used on shipping labels for example). Next, we'll look at the technical standards for RFID in the supply chain, and then briefly discuss conformance on other related issues.
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