Magazine Article | May 11, 2006

RFID's Civil War

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Item-level tracking may be the ultimate goal of some RFID (radio frequency identification) adopters. But, choosing the right frequency just got a lot more interesting.

Integrated Solutions, April 2006

Going into RFID World 2006 (March 2006 in Dallas), I thought a couple of things were clear about the RFID industry. When it came to item-level tracking, high frequency (HF, 13.56 MHz) would be the transmission of choice. And, of course, that leaves ultra high frequency (UHF, 900+ MHz) for the tracking of larger items — such as cases and pallets — throughout supply chain applications. This wasn’t just throwing darts on my part. Look at all the coverage both frequencies have received in the past few years. Also, look at the case studies and even the current deployments of both frequencies within companies. Wal-Mart and the DoD are tracking pallets and cases using UHF. In the pharmaceutical space, item-level tracking is leveraging 13.56 MHz technology for the application. And, it only makes sense, based on past successful item-level apps that used 13.56 MHz.

Coming out of RFID World 2006, there was no shortage of technology vendors speaking candidly about using UHF technology for item-level tracking. “Up to this point, it’s been all about marketing spin,” said one vendor. “The companies behind UHF technology have kind of ceded the item-level space to 13.56 MHz vendors. They [13.56 MHz technology vendors] did a great job defining the item-level space as one controlled by 13.56 MHz technology. We [UHF technology vendors] didn’t do anything to counter this belief.”

Apparently, that’s going to change.

In fairness, the success of 13.56 MHz technology is not the result of a great marketing campaign. In fact, the technology has a long track record of success with item-level tracking apps. It’s not incorrect to say that 13.56 MHz technology has been more successful as an item-level tracking technology than UHF has been successful in larger supply chain apps. The pharmaceutical industry is moving forward with several deployments of 13.56 technology at the item level. This was not a choice between HF and UHF technology. At this point, there is no choice. For item-level tracking apps, 13.56 MHz technology is proven and UHF is not. Period.

But, will 13.56 MHz be the frequency of choice in the future? That’s the question that was being openly discussed at RFID World 2006. This is not a minor point of difference that’s emerging from this event. In fact, it’s revolutionary for the industry … if UHF can deliver on its item-level tracking claims. If this happens, it will fundamentally change how RFID is deployed and how the industry moves forward.

Before anyone gets too excited about the prospects of a ubiquitous RFID frequency that can handle all applications, there are some serious physics issues that need to be addressed. UHF has a lot of difficulty working when tags are located near metallic and liquid items. HF, on the other hand, is better at handling these challenges. But, one vendor was quick to address this very point. “When you look at HF technology today, it’s the result of decades of research and development and engineering. This is the HF product that resulted from these efforts. By contrast, UHF development has only really happened in the past 18 to 24 months. Give us a couple of more years and we’ll overcome the obstacles that stop UHF from being used at the item level.”

One vendor describes the oncoming “debate” as a civil war. Well, that might be a bit dramatic. But, it’s not an overstatement to say that the outcome of this debate will profoundly affect how RFID operates within your enterprise.