RFID Cries Today Wal-Mart, Tomorrow the World!

Jan. 14, 2005
True to its name, EPC Global has continued to push forward on standards that will allow radio frequency identification (RFID) to continue to expand globally

True to its name, EPC Global has continued to push forward on standards that will allow radio frequency identification (RFID) to continue to expand globally. “This technology continues to move forward at an amazing pace,” says Sue Hutchinson, EPC Global U.S. She notes that some technology companies sat on the fence for a while, waiting to see which way RFID applications and standards would go. They’re no longer on the fence.

Thanks to efforts by major retailers like Wal-Mart, standards for RFID technology using the ultra-high frequency (UHF) bands have moved forward quickly. While those standards are being coordinated with the International Standards Organization (ISO) to become truly global, other spectrum issues are being tackled. “We picked up UHF as our starting point and we are going forward from there,” says Hutchinson.

Wal-Mart’s leadership in using technology to improve its business is legendary, Hutchinson continues. The mass retailer’s support of the UHF tag standards provided much of the impetus for EPC Global to move quickly towards the second-generation standard.

But Hutchinson points out the current RFID standards aren’t all about Wal-Mart. “We worked very hard not only in terms of drawing in participation from all over the world, but making sure that when we worked with the end users to put together their requirements, [the protocol] had to work everywhere.”

Generation Two, or Gen 2 as it is known, isn’t a protocol that’s built for 915 MHz alone, or for the U.S. market, for that matter, Hutchinson explains. EPC Global and the standards committees spent a lot of time making sure Gen 2 could meet regulatory conditions outside the U.S.

Coordination with end users was also important and represents a major part of the effort. In addition to issues like the proximity of readers in a dock situation - where a number of reader-equipped doors can be very close together - the real world of RFID also means thinking very globally, Hutchinson explains.

EPC Global researched the power and bandwidth restrictions within the regions and countries that had declared what they were going to do with the UHF bands. It made sure that the protocol had enough flexibility built into it to be as useful in different areas of the world in different parts of the frequency range as it can be. The groups had to be cognizant that the tags may be applied in one locale and read in another, and there could be spectrum and power restrictions in one of the locations.

“It was wonderful having input from the user community,” says Hutchinson. “An organized user community kept us on track and it was one of the things that has enabled EPC Global to move forward with a standard as rapidly as we were able to.” In the standards world, the second generation RFID standard moved at lightening speed. “For all intents and purposes, we started the standard in February and finished within a year.” Organizing the user community behind the effort helped drive some demand that got some of the technology companies off the fence. “We’re going to see a lot more vendors come to the market around Gen 2,” Hutchinson concludes.

EPC Global hasn’t wasted any of that momentum, and it is working with ISO to move the various protocols it helped develop into global standards. The protocols have enough flexibility to allow readers to operate within the spectrum, even if portions of the band are already allocated for other radio services. That will help overcome some of the regional operating and license issues. It is also a firm foundation for ISO certification and for the move into other frequency bands.

Container security initiatives have focused attention on active tags operating in the 433 MHz band and Hutchinson says there is also quite a lot of interest and development taking place in other applications in the 13.56 MHz range.

EPC Global also has its eye on the expansion of RFID into other industry segments such as healthcare and life sciences. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies are moving forward to meet pedigree requirements that will be in place in 2006, and RFID is one technology that holds a lot of interest.

For information on the electronic product code (EPC), radio frequency identification (RFID) and current standards work in these areas: www.epcglobalus.org.

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