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What is Near Field Communications?

Josh C. Airman
Josh C. Airman

Near field communications (NFC) is a subset of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. NFC is different from RFID because of near field communications' standardized communication distance of roughly 4 feet (1.2 m). NFC is defined as contactless communication, because it allows information to travel between a source and receiver without any actual physical connection; the limited proximity allows for greater communication security, and the instantaneous communication allows for fast information exchange.

Near field communications relies on two separate components, an NFC tag and an NFC reader/writer. The NFC tag is a printed circuit integrating an antenna and stored data. Some devices are only capable of reading NFC tags, while others are capable of reading and writing data to NFC tags; at the very least, a device must be capable of reading NFC data to take part in an NFC handshake or transaction.

Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

NFC can facilitate interactive marketing, financial transactions, and general information dissemination. A near field communications event occurs between two components when an object holding an NFC chip containing specific information and an NFC reader, often in the form of an NFC-capable mobile phone, interact. Most NFC tags are passive and only send information when an RFID signal is received; passive tags rely on the RFID signal to provide power to the circuit and remain dormant until activated by the NFC reader.

This is how an average NFC event occurs. The NFC reader sends an RFID signal in search of NFC tags within the 4-foot (1.2-m) radius; any NFC tags within that radius receive the RFID signal and respond by sending their preloaded data. The NFC reader then interprets this data and carries out the NFC tags' command. An NFC tag may direct a user's device to use a specific program or to visit a website for further interaction; the NFC tag acts as a prompt for further interaction on the part of the end user.

The area of near field communications has grown in popularity because of the low cost of NFC tag production, ease of configuration, speed of communication — up to 424 kilobits per second — and inherent security of communication instances. NFC also follows International Standards Organization (ISO) standard No. 14443, the primary international smartcard interoperability standard, making it capable of interaction with previously implemented contactless smartcards and their readers. Because of the overall operational value of NFC, it is imaginable that NFC deployment will continue to grow in both private and public sectors.

Discussion Comments


@David09 - I agree. The 4G technology on your phone is more powerful than what’s described here for NFC. There is a reason it’s called “near field” communications, and the signal strength seems to be pretty low as well.

I don’t think anyone should fear Big Brother using near field communications as a means of spying on consumers or sending private information to a data bank somewhere.


@nony - Yeah, I think the NFC RFID card is what will cause this thing to explode, not the technology itself. After all, we’re only talking about 4 feet distance for the communication signals. I don’t know how much Bluetooth is but 4 feet is certainly not far.

I think that should also set your mind at ease about the possibility of information being sent over a wireless signal to some other source. Wireless for laptop signals provides a greater range than NFC, by comparison.


@NathanG - I don’t think that it’s such a big deal. There is a lot of wireless transmission that goes on already in the domain of commerce, and we never stop once to consider where all those signals are actually going.

I think the technology is very similar to Bluetooth actually, especially when you consider that the reader is often in a mobile phone. I think it would be very useful in financial transactions; perhaps you could easily use your smart phone to make NFC payments or get money transmitted to your account.

Or you could wave your phone over a product label to get more detailed information about the product if you want. I think the possibilities are limitless. Those NFC tags are dirt cheap and can be put just about anywhere.


I smell a rat here. Am I to understand that NFC near field communication allows these transactions to take place without my knowing about it?

So if I am making a purchase of a product that has an NFC tag, then the reader can not only read that tag to complete the purchase, but also send it to a website as part of a marketing strategy?

This is an invasion of privacy to be sure, in my opinion. Granted, I can see how it might be useful in wireless scanning of products but I think the transmission of information should be limited to the transaction, nothing more.

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