In travel, NFC will open doors, pay fares

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Naresh Prabhu RWith major smartphone manufacturers like Nokia, RIM and Apple introducing or on the verge of introducing near field communication, or NFC, chips in their mobile devices, the experiences of leisure and business travelers are about to undergo a tremendous change.

NFC is a short-range, wireless technology aimed at making it easier for consumers to make transactions, exchange digital content and connect electronic devices. With NFC technology, mobile devices can be used to communicate in three ways:

  • To store data that enables the smartphone to emulate, for example, a key or credit card.
  • To exchange data in peer-to-peer fashion with another device to perform an action.
  • To read or write information encoded in RFID or other wireless-encoded tags.

For travelers, this can mean using mobile phones for airline boarding passes, checking into hotels without going to a front desk for a key or passing through airport security by waving a mobile device near an NFC reader.

Click on the image to enlarge it.What's more, this can all be achieved even if the smartphone is turned off or its battery has run down. (The chart here provides more examples of how NFC can be applied in each leg of a traveler's journey. Click the image to enlarge it.)

As travelers become more accustomed to the convenience afforded by NFC, travel vendors can expect to see an increasing demand for these types of services.

According to Forrester's 2011 Mobile Trends report, "2011 is -- finally -- the year that near field communication begins to matter. The market will finally move away from the trial stage in regions where NFC infrastructure is in place."

NFC is already gaining a foothold in the travel market. For example, in a pilot project called Pass and Fly at France's Nice Airport, Air France, Amadeus and IER replaced 2D barcodes with NFC. The aim was to use an NFC-enabled smartphone to simplify things like passenger recognition, crediting Club Airport Premier points and airplane boarding.

In Sweden, the Clarion Hotel Stockholm has undertaken a pilot to replace hotel room keys with NFC-enabled smartphones. Guests can check in and receive their room keys directly on their phones before arriving at the hotel. They can also check out using their phone.

NFC consists of three major parts:

• Front-end functionality: The NFC-enabled app determines how the smartphone will be used. In the case of a traveler, all the functionality related to the user interface and the controls will reside in the smartphone. The same phone can be used for payment, to open a hotel door or as a reader/writer when a guest is checking out.

• Target devices: These are the devices with which the smartphone will communicate to perform an action based on the application. In the travel sector, these are hardware readers/writers embedded by hotels, airports or other providers in the mechanics of locks, kiosks, turnstiles, etc.

• Back-office functionality: The server systems that take care of security authentication, downloads, personalization and integration of the front-end application.

As is the case with any technology in its nascent stage, NFC presents its own set of challenges, most notably security, standards and payment processes.

Though NFC is a short-range communication, security attacks are possible. When peer-to-peer communication happens, it is always possible for an intruder to steal or alter data as it moves from one device to another.

Developing interoperable standards will be essential so that any device can be used in any entity, whether it be a hotel or an airline, without dependency on a specific manufacturer or network provider.

During the payment process, card issuers are not threatened by the NFC, but payment processing companies will need to implement new processes that will change the way processing is done today.

Some of the leading smartphone manufacturers, including Apple (iPhone) and RIM (BlackBerry), are still in research mode with regard to introducing NFC chips.

Existing industry-related forums and standards need to ensure that businesses can overcome the challenges posed by the technology without hassles. Yet, despite the early challenges, NFC will clearly change travel as we know it today.

Naresh Prabhu R is a principal consultant within MindTree Ltd.'s Travel & Transportation Industry Group, responsible for heading the presales team. He has more than 15 years of experience in various fields of enterprise resource planning and travel and hospitality. 

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