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FCC delves into radio tag challenges

Industry experts join government panel to look at what's keeping the old-fashioned bar code around.

Radio tags have yet to become as pervasive as the printed bar codes that appear on every domestic product, but industry players and the Federal Communications Commission are working to eliminate the obstacles to the promising technology.

Power limitations and varying international regulations are among the challenges that threaten to slow mass adoption of radio frequency identification tags (RFID), a Federal Communications Commission workshop panel said Thursday.

A panel of industry representatives, from Sun Microsystems to chip designer Impinj, served on the FCC's workshop, which addressed the practical and regulatory issues facing the adoption of radio frequency identification.

"There is certainly a lot of hype in the industry but also a huge amount of promise," said Rob Glidden, senior director of engineering and operations at Impinj.

Panelists said the technology holds the promise of eventually replacing the bar code system for tracking items, as well as offering a system that would be more secure. They noted how manufacturers, the government and retailers, in particular, are driving the technology's adoption because of the cost savings expected from better knowing where their goods are and how much is on hand.

RFID tags are microchips smaller than a grain of sand. They reply to radio queries by transmitting their unique ID code. Most RFID tags are passive, having no batteries; they use the power from the initial radio signal to transmit their response. Also in development are "active" tags that have antennas and batteries.

Obstacle course
Both versions of the technology face challenges, from designing desired features while keeping size and costs down.

In a test, the performance of the ID tags dropped as the RFID reader was moved farther away, said Ravi Pappu, co-founder of RFID sensor and reader developer ThingMagic, who presented an overview at the panel session.

Pappu said the RFID reader could read 60 tags placed on an item from 7 to 8 feet away. But as the gap was widened to 18 to 19 feet, the reader could only pick up half of the tags.

He noted that the only way to resolve the problem would be to add power, via a battery, to the RFID tag, or to increase the antenna on the RFID reader. Among the drawbacks to that is the increase in size and cost such features would bring.

The average cost of a passive RFID tag--having no battery or antenna--is about 15 cents to 25 cents, but retailers hope to see the cost fall to about a nickel each, said Lauren VanWazer, panel moderator with the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology.

On the regulatory side, the panelists noted that different radio regulations exist from country to country, making the tracking of goods and communication more difficult.

Although Pappu said the UHF radio frequency will be the most prevalent form of RFID internationally, most countries have different UHF radio frequency bands. And the adoption of UHF has not taken off as strongly in Europe as it has in the United States.

Another challenge the technology faces is making sure that it is dependable, said Brian Leonard, RFID program manager at Sun Microsystems, which entered the RFID market about five years ago with a middleware product.

"Reliability and manageability are big areas now. You have people depending on this information to run their businesses," Leonard said. "Security implications of RFID are also receiving a lot of attention now and are being addressed in the new standards."