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Dial "O" for an Open Door

While a new technology that could turn smartphones into access control devices looks promising, a recent pilot program reveals complications. WHILE IT MAY NOT be as simple as “dialing,” or rather tapping or speaking, the letter “O” into your smartphone, the future of access control will likely include the use of mobile phones. The key is technology called near field communication (NFC)—which refers to a set of standards allowing radio communication between devices at close range. It has mostly been used to enable retail transactions on smartphones. Now some companies are exploring the possibility of using NFC to turn smartphones into access control devices.

But the road to that future may not be smooth. A study by Arizona State University (ASU) found that some significant hurdles must be overcome before smartphone access control features become widely adopted.

Laura Ploughe, ASU’s director of business applications and fiscal control, notes that the concept of incorporating access into a mobile device seemed a natural fit for a university setting. Because students use their smartphones for all types of purposes, they are more likely to remember to carry their phones than access cards. So when Ploughe learned of a new technology from HID Global that would help entities embed identifications into smartphones and then use the phones for NFC-enabled access control, she was interested in exploring its potential. After speaking with some HID executives, she began to make plans for a pilot test.

The pilot included about 35 students. Each was provided with one of three phones, a BlackBerry, Apple iPhone, or Samsung device with an Android platform. Students were told they could keep the phones and were also given three months of unlimited service in exchange for promising to use the phones for access whenever possible. HID’s new SE-class software was downloaded into each device, and each student’s existing university identification information was then embedded into the software.

Because there were almost no available phones with embedded NFC capability, Ploughe worked with a consulting firm to embed NFC chips and antennas into the phones. (Since that time, a few major phone manufacturers have introduced NFC-enabled models.) With the BlackBerrys, chips were embedded in the devices’ Micro SD cards. In the case of iPhones, which lack such cards, chips were placed inside customized phone cases.

The most time-consuming part of setting up the pilot was installing NFC readers onto 14 doors in the dormitory where the pilot would occur, Ploughe says. As participants approached the door, they would need to activate an application on their phones that would then permit the use of the embedded credential for about 30 seconds.

Eighty percent of participants said that using the phones was just as convenient as using traditional access cards, Ploughe says. Many students expressed an interest in using the phones for other purposes, such as purchasing meals and doing laundry. Some nonparticipants viewing the phone-based access expressed an interest in being able to do it, she says.

At least a few students complained about the usability of the application, however. Some felt that the process of opening the application for access purposes would sometimes interfere with phone calls or other phone activities. Some participants expressed an interest in a solution that might allow for a single button to launch the application so as not to interrupt other phone activities.

In a few cases, the application seemed to stop working. This was generally resolved, but required the user to take out the device’s battery and then replace it and restart the device, she says.

Although she’d eventually like to bring the technology to the university, Ploughe says that doing so presently would be too challenging for financial and other reasons. Using the technology throughout the campus would likely require adding wireless Internet to numerous university dormitories and establishing a much larger system of credential provisioning. “Right now, the [return on investment] just isn’t there,” she says.

Aside from the cost, one of the main challenges currently facing NFC-enabled phones is a reliable power source, says Dave Adams, HID senior product marketing manager. Though NFC requires relatively little power to be effective, the risk that batteries could run out in phones could hinder the reliability of phone-based access control.

Another challenge concerns usability. Currently, NFC devices need to be placed considerably closer to readers than many access control cards, he notes, which could make it more challenging to enter doors. One reason for this concerns existing levels of throughput available from common standards-based NFC technology, he says. He doesn’t think this will be a “showstopper,” however; it may only require “education and acceptance,” he says.

For organizations that don’t provide their employees with phones, it could also be challenging to ask workers to obtain NFC-capable devices and to download access applications, he says. Some organizations, such as in the government, may also not allow any phones into certain areas for security and privacy reasons, requiring workers to use another access method in these cases.

HID is working closely with numerous access control and other organizations to help overcome the technology challenges and to develop additional standards, says Adams. Phone-based access may also become more feasible over the next few years as the number of NFC-ready devices grows. Gartner estimates that by 2015, 50 percent of new smartphones will be NFC-capable, though the technology may be more commonly used for other purposes, such as financial transactions.

A key determinant in the success of phone-based access may eventually be the user’s experience, says Adams. If such technology appears to slow users down in gaining access, for example, it “might be looked at as ‘well that’s neat, but my card gets me through just like that.’”