RFID: Not a Perfect World

It's not the best of times for RFID.

Even at the best of times it’s a messy, imperfect world — and these are far from the best of times. And nowhere is that more true that in the area of radio frequency identification (RFID).

At the most fundamental level, RFID is a lot more complicated than, say, bar codes, simply because of the laws of physics under which the systems operate. In designing systems, RFID engineers have to balance signal strength, wavelength (frequency), range, read rate, ability to penetrate overlaying material, effects of RF-absorbing and RF-reflecting material, interference by other RF sources, cost, antenna design, etc., etc. The list goes on (and on and on).

But the greatest challenge facing RFID these days may not be the laws of physics but the laws of man. That is to say, RFID still has to deal with some daunting differences in the regulatory environment around the world.

Part of the problem in global implementation of RFID, and indeed all wireless technologies, is that almost every country in the world has historically gone its own way when assigning different parts of the radio spectrum. What’s reserved for cell phones in one country might be reserved for emergency services in another and for radio or television in another.

Finding a clear band (set of contiguous frequencies) that is globally acceptable — and useful for RFID — has not been possible. Even finding a band that can be made available (by changes in national policies) has been extremely difficult. The good news is that some progress is being made, particularly within the European Community, in assigning bands for several different types of RFID systems.

The bad news is that, even given this progress, the result is nowhere near a global consensus.

The major thrust in RFID systems these days is toward UHF — 13.56 megahertz (MHz). This includes the so-called “smart labels” that are attracting so much attention because they’re relatively inexpensive. That means they can be cost-effective in many more applications than conventional RFID tags. (Developing an acceptable return on investment has been the other major hurdle RFID always had to clear.)

However, parts of Europe still have very restrictive regulations concerning power levels (ironically, Russia is the most restrictive), and Japan does not permit UHF RFID systems at all. Considering that Europe and Japan are prime candidates for using smart labels between trading partners, this isn’t great news.

To some extent, restrictions on power levels can be addressed locally simply by limiting the amount of RF energy emitted by the antenna. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Application considerations can suddenly crop up as a result of conformance with local regulations. For example, embedded tags in pallets that can be easily read in the U.S. and Canada might not be readable (or easily readable or readable at any useful range) with lower signal strengths. This may or may not be a significant issue in a given application, but it is one that anyone looking to use smart labels internationally has to address.

The outlook for the global acceptance of RFID for specific applications is not as bleak as it might appear. England, for example, is on the forefront on implementing RFID tracking of returnable containers using smart labels. Denmark has long led in tracking animals through the meat-packing process (the first million-tag order was for Danish pork). In other words, the benefits of RFID are clearly understood in Europe, and it is only a matter of time before the regulatory confusion is cleared up — at least to the point where smart labels can be more universally used.

Once North America and Europe are united on regulatory issues, Japan and others will probably come on board as well, if somewhat reluctantly. And the change will likely come about not because a bunch of technical gurus have gotten together to resolve technical issues but, rather, because companies that want to use smart labels will show their benefit to that country’s balance of trade.

And trade, after all, is what makes the world go ’round — as messy and imperfect as it is.

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