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NFC—Pay By Phone and Beyond

Innovative companies are devising new and clever ways to take advantage of Near Field Communication.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 01, 2011—Banks, credit card issuers, telecommunications providers and cellular-phone manufacturers all are battling to carve out a role in the nascent mobile-payments market. In May, Google unveiled plans to offer a mobile-payment system in cooperation with Citibank, MasterCard, First Data and Sprint. The Google Wallet will let owners of cell phones running Google's Android operating system, and equipped with Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology, pay for goods with a tap of their phones at point-of-sale terminals.

NFC is a short-range, high-frequency wireless technology that enables data exchange between two NFC-equipped devices. Other technologies compete in the mobile payment space, including 2-D bar codes and various biometric technologies (fingerprint scanners, for instance). But the fact that a dominant technology company like Google is betting on NFC suggests NFC is the front-runner among mobile-payment technologies.

Illustration: Ryccio | iStockphoto
Many businesses are focused on NFC—a form of RFID—because the technology can do more than just facilitate transactions. An NFC tag can store more data than a 2-D bar code, and an NFC-enabled phone can both read tags and emulate them. So, for example, a consumer could use an NFC phone to download tickets to a baseball game, then swipe the phone by a reader at the turnstile to gain entry to the ballpark.

In fact, it's NFC's versatility that gives it an edge over rival technologies and opens the door to a wide variety of uses. Several applications featured in our cover story, "101 Innovative Ways to Use RFID," employ NFC technology. Monks living in a 13th-century Czech monastery, for example, provide visitors with NFC devices so they can access information in their own languages).

Consumers participating in trials have used their NFC phones to purchase and store monthly transit tickets for trains, buses and other public transportation, as well as buy one-way tickets and change tickets on the fly—all by logging in to the transit provider's Web site. Others studies have proved that NFC phones can replace paper airline boarding passes, building access-control cards and hotel room keys (a recent test in Sweden was hugely popular with guests).

Museums could place NFC tags near individual works of art, and visitors could use NFC phones or other devices to read the tags and download print or audio descriptions (this would replace cumbersome audio tours that require visitors to view works in a specific order). Retail malls, hospitals, college campuses and other complexes could put NFC tags on signs, so visitors could download maps indicating their current locations.
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