The Last Pieces of the Puzzle

By Bob Violino

Japan's decision to allocate a portion of the UHF spectrum for use by RFID systems paves the way for global adoption.

By Mark Roberti

June 30, 2003 - When I launched RFID Journal 18 months ago, it was in the belief that RFID technology would soon be ready to be used to track goods as they moved between companies in the global supply network. There were countless people who told me why that would never happen. And to be honest, there were times when I had my doubts. The Auto-ID Center had a concept, but there were a lot of pieces of the puzzle missing.

For instance, there was no commercial software that could take advantage of RFID data, no middleware to manage all the data, no way to deploy readers cost effectively in a retail store, and no way to get around the problem of recycling packages with RFID tags in them. One of the biggest missing pieces was Asia. Japan and China didn't allow RFID systems to operate in the UHF band, which meant any global supply chain system would have very limited value in the region.

Back in September I wrote in this column about how the pull of the market was attracting pieces of the puzzle, one by one (see Pieces of the Puzzle). This week, one of the biggest missing pieces fell into place. RFID Journal broke the news that Japan will open up the UHF spectrum for RFID tracking. The importance of this is difficult to overstate. Japan is the world's second-largest economy and the rest of Asia usually follows its lead. Trying to create a global RFID system without Japan would be like trying to build a computer network without Windows PCs.

The market pull for a global RFID system is now so strong it's forcing governments to make regulatory changes. And this is only the beginning. You'll soon see governments trying to agree on a specific band within the UHF spectrum, and they'll come under pressure to loosen regulations on power emissions in Europe.

The other significant development this week is the news that MeadWestvaco has come up with a networking technology that allows one reader to control hundreds of antennas (see Tesco Tests Low-Cost RFID System). One of the reasons many people thought that item-level tracking was decades away was because it would cost a fortune to outfit every shelf in Wal-Mart with a reader. The MeadWestvaco technology holds out the possibility that it can be done a lot more cheaply by using one reader to control many antennas.

There is still one significant piece of the puzzle missing, and that is low-cost reader antennas. A typical UHF antenna -- a piece of metal with a coaxial cable attached to it -- costs about $200. If I were a venture capitalist with a pool of money to invest, I would be looking for the company that's going to create low-cost reader antennas in a variety of form factors. The technology is out there, and it's only a matter of time before the RFID market's growing gravitational pull attracts the companies that can provide this piece of the puzzle.

I knew 18 months ago that there were a lot of obstacles to overcome before we would see companies begin deploying RFID for use in open supply chains. But I took the risk of launching the Journal because I believed that RFID would save companies billions of dollars. And when that kind of money is at stake, people will find ways to overcome problems and get things done. With Japan on board, there's nothing left to stop this technology.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, send e-mail to

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