The campus card industry has witnessed many technology shifts and changes. Text-only ID cards incorporated photos, photo ID cards adopted bar codes, these cards then added magnetic stripes, and relatively recently some of these cards have sported a smart chip. Frequently lost in the ongoing debate of which technology and application to use is the fundamental question, “how can we best identify a person?” At the end of the day that is the key demand on an ID card.
We must ask a series of questions, including, “how can we identify a person faster? How can we do that with fewer card readability problems? With fewer reader reliability problems?” With increasing frequency universities and colleges are finding that contactless or proximity identification systems provide a solid solution for their needs.
What is it?
Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead for contactless identification technology is a clear market definition of contactless and proximity and the benefits of each. These ‘contactless’ tokens all work within ‘proximity’ of an eligible reader. These options can be broken down into two principal categories:
Proximity cards, or prox cards, are read-only devices that are encoded once and then used to transmit a fixed numeric value to a reader. The underlying mechanism is a radio frequency identification (RFID) token embedded in an ID card. The cards contain a chip and an antenna that, when brought within the geographic vicinity of a reader’s radio field, enables the card to draw power from the reader to communicate (see fig-ure 1). This entire process takes less than one second. The typical prox card uses the 125 kHz frequency band.
The majority of prox cards are manufactured by HID Corporation. The company reported sales of more than 27 million units in 2001 and commands an estimated 80% of the total proximity market. Other manufacturers include Indala (formerly owned by
Motorola, recently purchased by HID’s parent corporation Assa Abbloy), Casi Rusco, and a variety of small volume producers.
HID recently began marketing a product called the Microprox tag that can be affixed to nearly any surface including a magnetic stripe card and as a result enables that item as an access-control token. While the thickness it adds to a card prevents it from being used in a tractor-fed reader (some vending readers), some institutions may find it promising as a means to prox-enable a percentage of their students, staff and faculty without having to recard the campus.
Contactless ID products are typically read-write capable and are found in many form factors (e.g. key fobs, cards, tags). The underlying application is in practice very similar to that outlined for prox cards above, with notable differences drawing on enhanced security and conformity to ISO standards.
The majority of contactless applications to date have been in mass transit (fare card) and inventory control but the usage is quickly expanding to include banking, physical access control, and logical access control with support for digital certificates and biometrics. Dominant players for these products include Philips Electronics (fare cards, etc.) and Texas Instruments (Mobil Speedpass tokens, etc.), with HID recently throwing their hat into the ring with their new i-Class line of contactless tokens and readers.
Where is it?
Although relatively few in higher education have taken notice of these technologies to date, there is a sea of change underway that will ultimately bring this type of ID technology to an application near you.
Do you live near Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, or Washington, DC? These cities are the first tier of a growing list of cities adopting contactless card technology for transit applications.
Even closer to home, universities and colleges’ are using the technology at a growing rate. Many campuses’ issue a standalone prox card for specific building access. Several institutions including Colby College in Waterville, Maine and St. Johns University in Jamaica, New York have taken the additional step to integrate the technology into their actual campus card.
“Particularly in light of our harsh Maine winters, students love being able to wave their cards by the reader to get into their dorm buildings quickly” says Ruben Rivera, Controller at Colby College. “It’s convenient for the students, and the dramatic reduction in wear and tear on the access control readers has been great for the staff and faculty as well.” Rivera tells CR80News that while all students receive an HID prox-enabled card, some staff have received HID prox key fobs as part of an internal test to evaluate options for non-student personnel including staff, vendors, etc.
Why should I consider this technology?
Some high-tech offerings have focused on new and exciting possibilities, including advanced applications and solutions integrated with other services. In some instances however, the product has not delivered a clear and measurable advantage over more established technologies (e.g. magnetic stripe).
Contactless and proximity technologies and applications offer unique value propositions as well as support for legacy identification technologies on the same card. Successful first read rates, low reader maintenance, and rapid data collection are all significant improvements over the previous contact technologies (e.g. barcode, mag stripe, contact chip). Customer service levels and customer satisfaction stand to improve dramatically when cards can be read quickly and less time is required for any card-related data collection.