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Hold the Phone

Near field communication-enabled smartphones for access and more
University Business, March 2013
After a successful pilot program where students could use their smartphones for door access, Arizona State is exploring the use of NFC-enabled devises for wayfinding and other applications.

If NFC smartphone dreams come true this year as hoped, for many schools it will simply be a matter of turning the technology up on their existing card readers. Indeed, the use of smartphones enabled by near field communication is happening on some campuses and is a near-term reality for others.

NFC is a technology currently in use with many campus card systems to enable access control and transactions to pay for food, laundry, and other services. The trouble with the cards is that they are easily lost or forgotten and just aren’t as handy.

While colleges and universities run trials supporting NFC-enabled smartphones, which could all but replace campus cards for applications old and new, card reader vendors see more smartphones equipped with the technology just over the horizon. With the number of new NFC-ready phones that phone vendors could release this year, a load of campus NFC rollouts could follow.

NFC Smartphone Applications

Villanova University (Pa.), which is participating in an ongoing trial using NFC-enabled smartphones and credentials to engage students around campus, is an early adopter of the technology.

In the first of two stages of the trial, students (and administrators) used their iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S smartphones to gain access via door-based readers to six campus buildings, 80 suites in two dorms, some exterior dorm doors, and some administrative buildings and individual offices. Among those invited to participate in the program, the school received no negative feedback, reports Kathy Gallagher, director of university card systems.

In the second stage, the school added laundry vending and POS (point-of-sale) registers in dining areas. “With their NFC smartphone and application open, [participants] can tap the phone on a reader instead of swiping a card to pay,” says Gallagher of the POS application. To do laundry, a student enters the laundry room and presents the NFC-enabled smartphone to a reader as their credential. Smartphones also provide vending machine access. “This gives the students a more rounded, robust feel of what NFC is. It’s not just for access to dormitories or for staff members to get into an administrative building. They can use it for more of their experience around campus,” Gallagher explains.

NFC-enabled Wayfinding

Arizona State University, which previously trialed NFC smartphone door access through a collaboration with HID Global, is now looking at NFC-capable wayfinding applications. Officials are purchasing wayfinding technology and putting emblems on LCD panels to identify NFC-enabled digital signage. Students simply need to tap the emblem with an NFC-equipped smartphone to get started, says Laura S. Ploughe, director of business applications and fiscal control.
Besides wayfinding, the technology may be used for pointing the campus community to athletic or other events going on. The content would be segmented by the area on campus where the event and the signage are located. “Where we have lots of wayfinding needs, we will have a lot of wayfinding content,” says Ploughe. The information could include the hours and exact location for an event and a URL the phone can bring up via NFC that links to more information.

“We are also looking at how we can incorporate it into other areas on campus. In the future, we plan to have LCD panels ready for students who walk up to any classroom or office so they can get information about current class availability via NFC,” shares Ploughe.

NFC will help put decision-making into students’ hands. Instead of having to find a different device or computer to log in to and go into their class schedule, they can use their phones and an LCD panel to get specific information about that class then and there. “The student receives immediate gratification, making a decision about the class right away,” says Ploughe. This could also free up some time for staff that assist students in these matters.

ASU is still exploring prototypes for embedding NFC capabilities into digital signage, so there are not many installs on campus. It’s too soon to talk about the costs of ramping up to NFC-enabled digital signage applications or what vendor Arizona State University is using, Ploughe says. But with the installation of prototypes, it’s safe to say deployment is not cost prohibitive. “Putting in digital signage is a cost we have anyway. Why not put the additional information in and make it available via NFC on smartphones?” asks Ploughe. It could drive down costs by reducing printing, office time, and web development, she explains.

Benefits of NFC Smartphone Applications

Security is an inherited benefit of NFC smartphones. “Most students use a passcode (password) on their phone. If they do lose it, no one can just pick it up and start using their credential. If the student loses a card, however, that card is active until the student reports it,” says Jon Bonass, systems manager for the Wildcard ID card program at Villanova.

And a student always knows where his or her phone is. “We have fewer lockouts, fewer students calling public safety saying they can’t find their credentials,” says Bonass. In other words, time and person hours are saved.

Applications for NFC smartphones are possible anywhere people swipe a card on campus. “You will be able to use it for age verification and sporting events because the students will always have their phones on them,” says Gallagher.

Class attendance is another option. Hypothetically, students could walk in and present their phones and the teacher could record their attendance, explains Gallagher. “I think it would be a great benefit for faculty members.”

NFC smartphones could also ease the recruiting process. “The students could potentially put some information on the phones to pass to recruiters at career fairs—something like a link to a resume,” says Bonass.

Application Adoption Challenges

Despite all the hype, schools are not moving forward with NFC smartphone applications until more phones arrive with the technology built in. Villanova could have expanded its trial to all POS registers on campus, but didn’t. Why? “Apple did not add NFC technology in the iPhone 5. We are praying it comes out in the iPhone 6. We are hoping some of the other phone manufacturers will have NFC built in, as well,” says Gallagher. Villanova now enables NFC through a special phone case that users must install on the iPhone 4 or 4S.

Gallagher affirms that the required case is a real issue. “That was the biggest complaint by the majority of our NFC trial participants. Their phone is a very personal thing to them. We had some students that loved the idea of NFC, but they didn’t want the case so they dropped out of the program,” says Gallagher.
“I am not going to go live throughout our campus [with NFC for smartphones] until this technology is available to our students no matter what phone they decide to use. I will not mandate that any of our students have to have a certain device,” she adds.

Villanova University is ready to launch the technology when students can get NFC on a phone of their choosing. “All they are waiting for is for NFC to be available on these phones. All of our readers already read this technology, so they don’t have to change out any of the readers,” says Jeremy Earles, product marketing manager for readers and credentials at Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, the vendor behind the readers at Villanova.

Once the iPhone, Android, and Samsung smartphones have NFC built in (and the platform is open so other software providers can develop software for it) it will be a lot easier to justify turning on NFC readers all across the campus for a variety of uses, Gallagher explains.

Which quarter, semester, or trimester will that be? The forecast is for an iPhone 5S with NFC by mid-year flanked on the left by several new Android phones and on the right by even more Samsung phones. If all goes right, the first new class this fall will be equipped to enjoy all that the fledgling technology has to offer.