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The pros and cons of proximity.

FROM THE SHOP FLOOR TO THE executive suite, from airports to industry, proximity access control technology has been steadily gaining popularity. The popularity of proximity systems can be attributed to many factors, some related to the history of the access control industry and others related to the unique benefits proximity systems provide.

Proximity, as it applies to the access control market, is defined as access cards or tokens that bear a unique number and do not require insertion or physical contact for the number to be read. Electronic article surveillance systems used in retail stores to prevent shoplifting do not qualify as proximity systems because each item is not tagged with a unique number. All the major proximity systems on the market are based on some form of radio frequency (RF) technology.

A basic understanding of proximity technology is useful to anyone considering such a system. The reader, usually mounted on a wall, has a circuit called an exciter that constantly transmits harmless, low RF energy through an antenna into a field. When a card enters the field, it receives the RF energy through its own antenna and responds by transmitting its unique ID number to the reader. The reader checks the validity of each card number received and then sends it to the controller that makes the access decisions.

Most cards are passive, meaning they contain no internal power source or battery. Passive cards featuring microchips use the energy received from the reader to power the microchip and transmit the ID number.

Active cards contain a lithium battery that powers the return signal and provides a greater read range than a passive card. While the batteries can fail, they generally outlast the cards. Active cards are more expensive than passive cards.

Proximity cards usually resemble credit cards, but some companies make them as key chain fobs. The read ranges for proximity cards vary from several inches to more than three feet. Range is a function of the technology used, the size of the reader and card antennas, and whether there is a battery in the card. Longer-range systems are sometimes referred to as "hands-free" systems because it is not necessary to use your hands to remove the card from your pocket for it to be read.

Although longer read ranges are sometimes desirable, they can also present problems. In general, the greater the read range, the greater the likelihood that unintentional reads will occur. This can happen when someone pauses in front of the reader, for example. Most longrange systems can be tuned down to minimize unintentional reads, but why pay more for the range if you can't use it? Evaluate each application individually to make sure you get the capabilities you need at a cost-effective price.

Proximity card readers come in different sizes and configurations to fit a variety of applications. They can be small enough to fit on a door or window mullion (frame) if necessary.

Generally, the greater the area of the antenna, the greater the read range of the system. Weatherproof readers are available for outdoor applications. For parking lot systems, readers built into the pavement read the ID numbers of cars driving over them.

Despite the popular impression that proximity technology is a relatively recent development, it has in fact been around in some form for almost two decades. The first passive proximity-based system was introduced in 1973. The technology grew in the late 1970s and with it an increasing awareness among consumers of the existence and benefits of proximity card access control technology.

In the mid-1980s more companies entered the market, offering only the "front end" of proximity access control systems. The front end is the part of the system visible to the user, specifically the cards and the readers. It does not include the computer and software necessary to complete the system. These new manufacturers sold proximity cards and reading subsystems to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who then integrated them with their computers and software to create their own turnkey systems.

The emergence of new companies had a major impact on the proximity industry. Rather than being forced to buy whole proximity systems, end users or dealers could choose proximity systems from any of the many card access control OEMs who were integrating proximity "front ends" into their products.

AS A NEW DECADE BEGINS, PROXIMITY technology is clearly well accepted in the marketplace. A security manager has many options to consider when deciding between the various types of proximity systems and card insertion-or swipe-based technologies.

Proximity systems have many advantages over other systems. One advantage is that they offer greater convenience to the user. Compare these two hypothetical scenarios. Company A has a mag-stripe access control system for its manufacturing facility. It's a cold, blustery morning, and Sally Employee arrives at work carrying her lunch, her purse, and some books she borrowed from the company library. To get in the door, Sally needs to set down the load she's carrying, take off her gloves, search through her crowded wallet for her card, insert the card in the reader, replace it in her wallet, pick up her belongings, and make it through the door without losing her gloves. John Worker arrives at Company B on the same cold, blustery morning and merely holds his briefcase next to the proximity reader installed at the entrance. Not only does John get to his desk sooner, but he arrives in a better mood. The greater convenience of a proximity system can aid significantly in softening employee resistance to the initial installation of an access control system, too.

This example illustrates how proximity systems save time. Even if employees save less than two seconds every time they go through the door, the saved time adds up to more than an hour a year per employee.

Since there is no wear on proximity cards, they generally last longer than most insertion cards, and some are backed by a lifetime guarantee against failure. Also, because users don't have to remove cards from their wallets to use them, people are less likely to lose them and cards don't have to be replaced as frequently.

Another advantage of proximity systems is that because the readers contain no moving parts, typical failure rates are low, usually between 2 and 3 percent per year. Compare this to the frequent maintenance required by some insertion readers, and proximity systems can actually be less expensive over the long term. Also, proximity readers can be installed within or behind any nonmetallic surface, making them virtually vandal-proof, and the ability to hide or camouflage proximity readers makes them less obtrusive in office environments.

Finally, proximity cards with microchips are extremely difficult to duplicate and provide the highest levels of security found in access card systems.

With all these advantages, why would anyone choose anything other than proximity? Well, there are disadvantages, too. Price is one. When productivity gains and other cost savings are taken into account, proximity cards and readers can actually be less expensive than other access systems, but they do carry a higher initial price tag-about $7 per card. Prices will fall somewhat as volumes increase but most likely will never reach the level of mag-stripe cards.

Historically, proximity cards have been thicker than the credit card thickness of most insertion cards, another disadvantage. Cards approaching the credit card standard of .030 inch are becoming a reality, however. Some proximity cards have serious limitations when custom graphics or photo ID is required, while others are packaged in the same fashion as insertion cards.

A final drawback of proximity systems is that due to the electronics involved, many of them consist of two units rather than just one read head, resulting in additional installation time. Also, separate power supplies are frequently necessary for proximity readers.

The demand for proximity products has been steadily increasing since the early 1970s. It is estimated that the proximity market will grow at a rate of about 30 percent a year for the next several years. And while not too long ago proximity was considered appropriate for executive suites but not for the shop floor, today we see more and more large proximity systems consisting of hundreds of readers installed in diverse locations.

The growth can be attributed to increased end user awareness, better product selection due to a greater number of suppliers, more attractive and higher-performance cards and readers, and decreases in prices. Higher volumes will drive prices down even further.

Much has been said about the potential growth of smart cards in the security and access control market. Current proximity cards offer no more than a unique number, which is sufficient for most current card access control applications.

Historically, the decisions concerning what card technology to use for a particular system have been based solely on the merits and demerits of each technology. But with new developments in the proximity industry on the horizon, a more forward-looking decision-making process may soon be required.

RF-based "passive monitoring" technology is starting to become available. For the first time, passive monitoring will permit the tracking of people in unrestricted areas, opening up completely new access control applications. Imagine time and attendance tracking where the employee need not consciously clock in or out. Other possibilities include key person tracking, access audit trails, and emergency evacuation where the location of remaining people on the premises is known by the police and fire department.

In addition, the development of substantially thinner proximity cards is already creating new opportunities. A recently introduced proximity card is thin enough (.045 inch) to fit in readers designed for other technologies. This means multiple technologies can be incorporated on the same card, for example, proximity and mag-stripe or proximity and Wiegand. This advancement would permit the same facility to use several different types of card readers without requiring employees to carry more than one card. Such a system will accelerate acceptance of proximity by many companies since the same card could be used for access control, time and attendance monitoring, job costing, and cafeteria and company store purchases.

The proximity market will grow significantly beyond its present level during the next few years. It now appears that it will become the dominant card technology by the early 1990s, and security managers should be ready for it.

About the Author . . . Mark Timms is access control market manager for Destron/IDI, a manufacturer of proximity cards and reading systems headquartered in Boulder, CO.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Cards: The Key to the Future; special access control supplement; proximity access technology
Author:Timms, Mark
Publication:Security Management
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Previous Article:Who is the real culprit?
Next Article:Access for success.

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