If you’re interested in the technical side of NFC and how it works then this is the article for you. In this article we explore the nitty gritty of NFC – how it works, the technology behind it and how it all comes together in your phone or mobile device. If you’re interested in the technical side of NFC and how it works then this is the article for you. In this article we explore the nitty gritty of NFC – how it works, the technology behind it and how it all comes together in your phone or mobile device.
Before we dive in, we’re going to assume that you already know that NFC stand for ‘Near Field Communication’ and that’s it's used to transmit data from a label or sticker to a phone or mobile device (or from device to device) in a contactless manner (meaning no connecting cords and not using the internet).
First up – a little history lesson
Before we get into the intricacies of how NFC works, let’s go back in time so you can get a better understanding of how NFC technology came about. NFC is based on what’s called RFID technology that has been around since the early 1970s. RFID uses electromagnetic radio signals to assist with data transfer between a reader and a passive electronic tag. Typically the tags will receive a small amount of power from the reader by using magnetic induction. This can help with increasing the range at which tags can be read by the reader.
In 2004 a bunch of companies like Sony, Nokia and NXP Semiconductors started the nonprofit industry association NFC Forum in the hope of helping NFC become standardised within the industry and help bring NFC technology to a wider market.
On their website they state their goals are to:-
Develop specifications and test mechanisms that ensure consistent, reliable transactions worldwide across all three modes of NFC. Take a leadership role in the industry to ensure NFC technology can routinely deliver a positive user experienceEducate enterprises, service providers and developers about the benefits of NFC technology to ensure growth in end user adoption. Establish the NFC Forum and NFC technology brands as well recognized and utilized marks
It wasn’t until around 2010 that Samsung and Google released the Nexus S phone that NFC became readily available to the public in a smartphone. From there NFC is now being supported in most modern Android phones. iPhones do have some NFC capability however it is limited to their proprietary Apple Pay product.
NFC Hardware Components
Now we’re going to take a look at what makes up the NFC components within your phone so you can get a better understanding of how these different elements come together to create the magic of contactless data transfer!
There are essentially three main components needed in a mobile device to make it NFC enabled. These are a Host Controller, an NFC Controller, and an NFC Antenna.
Now let’s take a look at each of these NFC hardware components individually and outline what they do and how they work.
The Host Controller
The host controller is like the frame of your house – there are other elements tacked onto it like walls, wiring, etc, but without the framework in place you just can’t build a house. The Host Controller helps to run the user interface of your phone along with assisting in the Application Execution Environment (AEE), which could be likened to your kitchen. A Application Execution Environment – like a kitchen, constructs a place where you can start creating elements (like meals, or in this case an NFC app).
The NFC Antenna
This is a pretty straight forward piece of hardware, like any other antenna it’s needed to transmit data.
The NFC Controller
This is really the brains of the operation. This is where your modulated and demodulated data is processed and then sent via the antenna to your labels or picked up by a label and displayed on your phone.
NFC and commercial applications
Given that NFC is an inherently easy and intuitive technology for customers to use (it’s a case of holding an NFC enabled device up to an NFC label or tag or another NFC enabled device to transmit data) and there’s no need for users to have an underlying knowledge of how NFC works, it is an excellent solution for many commercial applications. Let’s take a look at some of the ways NFC is being used around the world.
Google Wallet and Apple Pay are two commercial applications that use NFC to make secure payments with a tap of your phone. These applications enable users to add credit card details to their NFC enabled phone and then make payments in stores and supermarkets. etc by just tapping their phone on the store’s POS system.
We are starting to see this technology a lot in public transport systems around the world. Instead of a paper ticketing system, cards are purchased and tapped upon entry or exit of a station or stop.
Many buildings currently have RFID Smartcards to enable access control to buildings. NFC technology is being looked at as an alternative to this as many users will always have their smartphones on hand and is just as easy to tap a phone to a door as a lanyard and associated smartcard.
There are many different ways people can use NFC tags for personal use (take a look at our NFC uses and features page) but there are also many options for commercial applications. Smart posters for marketing and advertising, NFC enabled bracelets for medical use for tracking patients or providing quick access to patient data or adding NFC enabled labels to clothing or other products to give customers that option to find out more product information are all ways that NFC is being used around the world today.
What’s in store for the future of NFC?
Whilst NFC has been around for some time we’re still in the infancy of seeing it widely utilised throughout the world. This is in part due to definitive standards not being realised between phone manufacturers, network operators, banks and other providers. But as standards are brought together and more and more people and businesses are realising the benefits of NFC, we’re going to see a wider distribution of this technology along with a greater uptake of consumer interaction.
If the level of NFC applications at CES 2017 is anything to go by, we’re going to start seeing NFC technology everywhere!