What you need to know about Near Field Communication or NFC, and why your mobile device needs it.
What is NFC?
Near Field Communication, usually shortened to NFC, is a technology that enables small form data transfer between two compatible NFC devices within a relatively short range of each other. NFC is the technology behind tap and go style credit cards, but it’s also present in an ever expanding range of mobile phone handsets.
How does NFC work?
NFC is a standardised, open-platform technology approved by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA).
While a contactless payment card uses NFC in a one-way direction to enable purchases, NFC on a smartphone can be bi-directional -- that is, sending data between two devices in either direction -- depending on the needs of the application.
NFC uses tags, or passive targets, that contain information or leads to locations that contain information or services. The most prominent use to date for NFC technology has been in payment processing, and in the smartphone world that’s still true, although it’s not the only use for NFC.
For effective use, NFC has a range of 20cm or less. As with any wireless technology there is the possibility of interference, which is why so many NFC solutions, including smartphones, advocate effectively "tapping" devices together to minimise data transfer issues. One advantage of a distinctly low speed data service is that power consumption is exceptionally minimal compared to the power needs of Bluetooth or WiFi.
Which phones offer NFC?
There are multitude of smartphones with inbuilt NFC, including pretty much every premium smartphone device and most of the middle range at the time of writing. NFC is available across Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry and iOS platforms, although there’s a relatively large catch when it comes to iPhone devices and NFC.
Apple has included NFC technology in its iPhone 6 and 6s lines, but with a significant catch. The way that iOS addresses its NFC chip means that it only works with Apple’s own Apple Pay application for financial transactions only. To date, only American Express in Australia is offering Apple Pay, and even there only for its own issued cards. The other applications of NFC are not open to iPhone users, at least for the time being.
What can I do with an NFC-enabled phone?
NFC is a data transmission standard, so in one sense the limits on NFC are fundamentally tied to how you wish to transmit or receive data packages. Much of that functionality, however, is tied into just a couple of applications unless you fancy app development itself.
- Contactless payments: This is by far the most common use of NFC on mobiles, whether it’s Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Cash by Optus or any of a number of other payment applications. In this mode, an NFC enabled smartphone acts in card emulation mode, effectively becoming a credit card that you can use in the same way you might use a Paywave or Paypass credit card. The added benefit of using your smartphone in this way is that an associated financial app can give you real time confirmation in a way that a non-powered credit card couldn’t.
- Simple device pairing: Some devices, including Bluetooth speakers and headphones offer NFC pairing modes for simpler connection to devices. Once verified via NFC, they hand off the actual audio duties to Bluetooth, because that level of data transmission isn’t NFC’s forte.
- Tag reading or writing: Because NFC is bi-directional, you can use it to store data onto simple NFC tags. This gives you the ability to set up custom applications, such as home automation duties so that, for example, you could tap your phone onto a wall tag to unlock a door or switch on lights or similar.
What are the risks with NFC?
Most NFC communications are set up to be automatic and painless, but that doesn’t mean that NFC is an entirely worry-free zone. Because of the strong focus on financial applications, there are concerns that, just as a contactless payment card can be "read" from a distance, it may be feasible to do so with an NFC-enabled phone connected to a payment account. Some services, such as Apple Pay use a secondary authentication method, such as a fingerprint to overcome this potential liability. You could also specifically disable NFC if this worries you and only enable it when you want to make a purchase, although that obviously trades convenience for security.