NFC, Bluetooth and RFID: Unraveling the Wireless Connections

A guest blog post by Frank Dawidowsky, NFC Forum Secretary

We live in an increasingly wireless world. Whether we’re listening to music, sending a file from one device to another, or using a fitness tracker, we now expect it to happen without plugging in a single cable.

Consumer demand for wireless peripherals and consumer electronics — speakers, printers, headphones, health monitors, smart watches and more — is growing rapidly. As just one example, a report by Cisco Systems forecasts that wearable device connections will grow from 170 million in 2015 to 578 million in 2019 — a growth rate of 340%.

The wireless revolution offers an array of new business opportunities for companies across many industries. But if you’re not paying close attention, the terms most often used for shorter-range wireless communication — Bluetooth, NFC, and RFID — can be confusing. Wireless communication methods are like trains, cars, and bicycles — they all provide transportation, but each one has unique attributes that make it better suited for certain tasks. The more you know about their differences, the better you’ll understand how each of them can best work for you.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is the wireless technology used most often for inventory tracking and supply chain applications. Passive RFID tags on products and boxes contain logistics information that can only be read with a special handheld reader at a range of up to 100 meters. RFID typically only supports one-way communication.

Bluetooth is a wireless standard that was designed specifically to replace data cables. Most non-industrial Bluetooth devices support two-way communication within a range of about 10 meters. Bluetooth is built into most mobile phones and many consumer electronics devices. With Bluetooth, you can do things like stream music from your mobile phone through your car’s audio system or use a wireless mouse with your computer. Pairing devices like these with Bluetooth alone can sometimes be a little tricky.

NFC (Near Field Communication) is a wireless standard that performs functions similar to RFID and Bluetooth — and much more. But there are several key differences.

Like RFID, NFC can read special tags; but unlike RFID, NFC tags can be used for virtually unlimited applications and all it takes to read them is a regular NFC-enabled device.

Like Bluetooth, NFC supports two-way communication between devices and is built into over 1 billion devices, including smartphones and a growing number of tablets, PCs, gaming consoles, consumer electronics devices, and household appliances. However, for greater security and control, NFC works within a close range of a couple of inches.

In addition, NFC offers something Bluetooth does not: card emulation mode. It lets your NFC-enabled handheld device act like a contactless smart card to make mobile payments at retail outlets with just a tap.A comparison of NFC, RFID, & Bluetooth

Which technology is right for your needs? It depends on the application and how it will be used, but here are a few general guidelines:

  • RFID is best for closed, read-only industrial applications, such as inventory control, within your own facilities.
  • Bluetooth is best for longer-range consumer and business applications where you simply want to get two intelligent devices working together.
  • NFC, because it supports three modes of operation and is built into so many off-the-shelf consumer devices, offers a unique combination of versatility, user control, and ease of use. In fact, NFC is so easy to use, it has been incorporated into the Bluetooth specification because it offers the fastest and simplest way to pair Bluetooth devices. (For more information on secure simple pairing of Bluetooth devices using NFC, download this document.)

The infographic above gives just a few examples of what you can do with NFC. To learn about more NFC use cases — and inspire your imagination about how NFC can help your business — visit our NFC Product Showcase.

About our guest blogger:

Frank Dawidowsky is Principal Engineer at the European Technology Center of Sony Corporation, located in Stuttgart, Germany. Frank has been active in the NFC Forum since its inception. He has more than 14 years of experience in standardization and has been an active contributor in a number of specification organizations and industry associations, including ETSI and the Wi-Fi Alliance.

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