Near Field Communication turns your smartphone into a smarter phone. Here's what you need to know.
Near Field Communication, usually shortened to NFC, is a technology that enables the transfer of small amounts of data data 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 means it can both send and receive data depending on the needs of specific applications.
The most prominent use to date for NFC technology has been in payment processing. In the smartphone world that’s still true, with mobile payment platforms like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay all becoming increasingly common in Australia.
For phones though, payments aren't the only use for NFC. Other applications include security authorisation where your phone can wirelessly unlock doors and computer systems for you, information exchange with another smartphone (such as swapping business card info) and automatically switching modes based on your location (such as switching to speaker phone when you get into your car).
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 advocate effectively "tapping" devices together to minimise data transfer issues.
One other advantage of NFC is that it's a relatively low-power solution, draining much less battery than other wireless technologies like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
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 you can currently buy. NFC is available across both Android and iOS platforms, although there’s a relatively large catch when it comes to iPhone devices and NFC.
Apple has included NFC technology in all its iPhone models since the iPhone 6, 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. 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 of what NFC can do are only tied to how you want to transmit or receive data. In general, however, there are only a couple of common NFC applications available, with more complex functionality limited to those who fancy building their own apps to leverage it.
- Contactless payments: This is by far the most common use of NFC on mobiles. Popular services include Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Cash by Optus or any of a number of other payment applications. In this mode, an NFC-enabled smartphone activates its 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 headphones and speakers, 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 feasible over NFC.
- 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 in your house.
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 entirely worry-free. 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 like 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.
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