More than a decade ago, Linda Dillman, then CIO of Walmart shook the retail world with a bold plan to change the state of its supply chain by employing radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. While the plan bombed, RFID eventually went on to become a useful tool in retail, logistics, healthcare and a handful of other enterprise sectors. What’s more – according to a recent earnings report by Checkpoint Systems, a global provider of in-store merchandise-availability solutions, the revenue of its RFID label grew by more than 20 percent year-over-year. The firm also predicted that there will be an increase of about 50 percent in its RFID project pipeline in the coming year, particularly due to the demand for omnichannel retail.
While this makes it sound like RFID based proximity marketing is fast taking over the world, the recent advent of iBeacon technology has changed the game by providing businesses with a whole new option for generating contextual intelligence. And just as during the initial days of RFID, beacons too were popular as a retail first solution. Given all this, it is not surprising that some of the questions that keep surfacing in most of our client conversations are: How do RFID tags differ from beacons? Will beacons ever replace RFID tags?
In this post we will discuss in detail how Beacon technology and RFID compare against each other on the following critical aspects:
What is accessibility?
Accessibility, in reference to location-based technology, is the ability of the technology to be “tapped into” or accessed by a consumer or business.
No matter which technology you opt to go ahead with for your business, you need to have some basic infrastructure such as a transmitter, a receiver and a data service in place to determine the location.
Cons: Deploying an RFID system requires a number of different components, including basic hardware such as tags, readers, reader control and an application software. Therefore, businesses that plan to put up an RFID program in place will need to plan ahead and invest upfront on the infrastructure front, on both the sender (tag) and receiver (reader) side.
Furthermore, while most location solutions come with an inherent compatibility with mobile, RFID does not. RFID requires hardware/firmware that can process signals at specific frequencies. To date, all major smartphone manufacturers are of the opinion that customer value does not justify the cost or complexity of building it into a mobile device. That said, it is still possible to download software or add attachments to turn a mobile device into a reader.
Pros: In the case of a BLE location system, beacons function as signal transmitters that are majorly battery-powered and can be configured with the help of a mobile app. This makes them scalable and highly portable. Adding on to that, the capability of beacons to allow smartphones to primarily act as the receivers makes it a highly accessible location technology.
Cons: Beacons once installed need to be checked regularly for battery levels, etc. One of the ways of going about this would be to walk around with a scanner app in the area where you have deployed beacons, to detect which beacon has run out of battery. However, that is a very painful and time taking process when done on a daily basis. Instead, businesses could opt for a beacon management platform such as Beaconstac that comes with a dashboard that allows businesses to keep a check on the health of beacons with ease.
2. Range and Accuracy
What are range and accuracy?
A range is defined as the distance that the signal travels. In general context, the range of any indoor location technology is dependent on the configuration, power settings and environment in which it is deployed. For example, a WiFi or Bluetooth signal will demonstrate a wider range outdoors without any obstruction than in a multi-surface indoor setting.
The reliability of the signal within a given range, and the tolerance of that signal when accounting for environmental factors is referred to as Accuracy.
Pros: While RFID makes it possible to identify up to 1000 tags per second at nearly 100% read rates, its accuracy varies based on a number of factors, primarily:
(1) Frequency: The higher the frequency, the more sensitive it is to interference. For example, radio waves tend to bounce off metal and are absorbed by water at ultra-high frequencies. This is one the primary reasons why UHF RFID tags are not used to track metal products or those with high water content.
On the other hand, low and high-frequency tags, with their capability to penetrate non-metallic substances, are ideal for scanning metallic products and objects with high-water content, such as fruits. In fact, there are applications in which low-frequency RFID tags are actually embedded in metal auto parts to track them.
(2) Tag antennas: Most RFID tags come with dual antennas to eliminate ‘dead zones’ related to the orientation of the tag. Few tags may also be optimized for the frequency band to improve performance.
(3) Readers and Reader Antennas: In this case, most near-field RFID systems are less subjective to interference as they operate at a shorter read-range while far-field RFID systems that can read up to several meters often face weaker communication issues.
All in all, because of the maturity and range of options available with RFID, it is possible to put any use case to play (for a price of course).
Pros: Beacons typically have a wireless range of 1m to 70 m.
Cons: Beacons being radio transmitters are prone to suffer from interference, as radio signals can be absorbed by different media, such as water, air, human bodies or even metallic surfaces. The best way to deal with this is to realign your beacons within the desired area of operation such that there is no proximity to metallic surfaces.
Another important thing to note here is that beacon range is dependent on ‘broadcasting signal power’. Higher the broadcasting signal power, greater the range at which mobile devices will be able to pick up the signal and convert it into information. Unfortunately, greater broadcast power can also result in faster battery drain. That said, you can change the broadcasting power based on the use-case in hand.
Pros: Since RFID systems are closely tied to standard IP network security solutions, any IP communication between RFID readers and the network is very secure.
Cons: When it comes to RFID systems, the only real security threat lies in the RF communication that happens between the tags and readers. Primarily because unlike beacons that simply send a signal with a beacon identifier effectively saying “I’m here!”, RFID actually transmits data related to the product (the EPC or the Electronic Product Code). Few common forms of data security threats are rogue/clone tags, unauthorized riders, and side-channel attacks (interception of reader data by an unauthorized device).
That said, all UHF RFID tags operate on a single global standard (Generation 2) that have some built-in security measures including disguised EPC number and “kill commands” that allow operators to deactivate tags so they don’t send data. Of late, however, RFID has received some criticism for weak encryption, password protection and lack of tag or reader identification.
Pros: Since beacons are primarily detection devices that broadcast outbound signals, there is no inherent security risk in the transmission.
Cons: As a matter of fact, the risk actually lies in the apps that use these signals. In this sense, beacons are no better or worse than any other location service communicating via a mobile device.
One of the common threats to beacon security is often referred to as beacon hacking. Beacons with weak security measures can be discovered by hackers in public places and their UUIDs, majors and minors can be changed. Hackers could even leverage your beacon network without permission. Most beacon manufacturers have now put some measures in place to prevent this from happening. We have discussed this and various ways to assess beacon security in one of our earlier blogs.
Pros: The cost associated with RFID solutions depends on the kind of solution (the type of tag – low frequency, high frequency or ultra-high frequency tags and type of reader) you are planning on implementing. For example, when it comes to inventory unit level tracking, RFID is without question the cheapest automation solution out there. Passive tags can cost as little as 1¢ and some ultra-high frequency reader systems can process 1,000 tags per second.
Cons: At the same time, if a business calls for asset tracking at the large object level (e.g. equipment or cargo containers), beacons could be more cost-effective when compared to RFID systems. Also, while the cost of an Active RFID tag is about at par with a beacon it calls for a more expensive investment on the reader infrastructure side. A single reader may cost up to $1,500 whereas almost all smartphones in the market can act as readers in the case of beacons.
Pros: The main costs associated with a beacon system are:
(a) Beacon hardware (including the cost of deployment) – While beacons by themselves are relatively cheap (a typical beacon would cost you anywhere between $10 to $70), the number of beacons required depends on the size of the space and range required.
(b) Licensing/data service costs – This is typically dependent on the volume of interactions being processed.
(c) App and integration costs – This includes fees associated with leveraging a third party app and integrating it with your third-party software such as CRM.
If you are planning a beacon pilot, take a look at Beaconstac, that includes everything you need to get started. Using Beaconstac you can set up your own campaign, without a developer’s help!