Getting real about RFID

VeriSign's Brian Matthews says an open, standards-based approach will be the key to matching the reality with the hype.

3 min read
You've already heard it many times. RFID technology has been around since World War II. So why are global supply chain retailers, manufacturers and technology vendors just now rushing to implement RFID? The short answer is that no technology since the Internet has held so much potential for businesses, governments and consumers. Wal-Mart's mandate that its top 100 suppliers be able to ship RFID-enabled goods this past January is proof that this potential is becoming a reality.

The long answer is that tags and readers are only the first part of RFID implementation, serving as the enablers for automated transmission of information. To receive RFID benefits, companies, governments and consumers will need to shift their focus from hardware technology to data management. That shift in innovation will be enabled by the network. It is the effective use of the real-time event data generated by RFID that will improve efficiencies and automate decision making.

Like all information on the Internet, RFID-generated information must be easily accessed by businesses and consumers alike. The Internet wasn't rendered useful until it had a layer of intelligent infrastructure that made it easier to use. That intelligence, the Domain Name System, or DNS, permitted the development of browsers and other applications that enabled people to find and share information on the Internet that was useful to them.

Tags and readers are only the first part of RFID implementation.

The continuing development of the system of network intelligence that secures, stores and shares Internet information remains the key to growing global commerce and communications. Every major infrastructure expansion--whether railroad infrastructure, airline infrastructure, or even widespread use of personal computers--did not render full benefits until simple intelligence systems made this infrastructure safe, efficient and easy to use.

In the case of railroads, the telegraph made railroad shipping and travel safe and efficient. Air traffic control systems transformed worldwide shipping and made consumer travel a growth industry. And software systems made personal computers easy to use, helpful and prosperous tools for businesses and individuals.

That layer of network intelligence for RFID is already here. It's called the Electronic Product Code and the EPCglobal Network. (It's supported by VeriSign, which operates the Internet's Domain Name System and the telecommunication industry's largest network to route mobile phone calls, support voice over IP, and make applications like "caller ID" possible.) In fact, the Object Naming System, which powers the EPCglobal Network, was designed to run much like the DNS--always up, always secure and very scalable--enough to handle growth well into the billions of queries each day.

So just where is the EPCglobal Network today, and what are companies doing to tie their tags, readers and RFID infrastructure into this network of information?

Through the EPCglobal Network, companies are learning how to do things like tracking and tracing products, reduce product counterfeiting and theft, and keep products in stock and on their shelves. They have launched pilots for sharing RFID information across the supply chain. Indeed, companies like Gillette and Procter & Gamble have given technology demonstrations that track and trace merchandise from the time it was manufactured to the time it was received at Wal-Mart stores.

RFID benefits are not just for businesses. Consumers are learning how their mobile phones and handheld communications devices can tap into the EPCglobal Network to receive RFID-enabled information that enhances their shopping experience.

Most of us have been using RFID technology for years--whether it be key cards that allow us access to our offices or dashboard units that speed us through highway toll booths. But the application of RFID to generate real-time event information about commercial processes--most notably within the supply chain--will truly revolutionize commerce.

It will be the intelligence applied to this technology and collection of data that brings about benefits for consumers and businesses. In the case of RFID, an open, standards-based approach to the network will be the key.