Tricks Of The Trade: Smart Card 101

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By James C. Elledge, IFMA Fellow, CFM, FMA, RPA, RIAQM
Published in the May 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Q I am doing some research and would like to know something about smart card capabilities. What is the maximum distance that the radio signal will be able to communicate with the smart card when moving past a reader?

Thomas Kohl

A You are correct in your understanding of the mature outsourcing services (janitorial, landscaping, etc.). These have been contracted out successfully by property owners to control expenses and improve quality and service levels.

I conducted a brief review of the different standards for RFID and smart card technologies. During my search, I came across an article that may be able to help answer some (if not all) of your questions.

Here are a few selected excerpts summarized from the report entitled “RFID vs. Contactless Smart Cards—An Unending Debate” by Parul Oswal and Michelle Foong, Frost & Sullivan, October 4, 2006.

Where RFID can read longer distances, contactless smart cards have the capability to read up to 4″ only. RFID can operate at 125 KHz, 13.56 MHz, 850 to 950 MHz, and 2.4 to 5.8 GHz, with memory up to 2 KB. Contactless smart cards, on the other hand, operate at a frequency of 13.56 MHz with higher memory capacity of typically 8K to 64K.


The increased security capabilities and memory capacity of smart cards render them suitable for applications such as e-passports, payment cards, and identification. Such applications are also better positioned to absorb the higher cost of smart cards (when compared to passive RFID tags).

Passive RFID is best for track and trace applications, especially within supply chains. As a general rule, while RFID is used in applications that identify and track objects, contactless smart cards are used in applications that identify objects/persons as well store financial/personal information.

There are certain limitations of RFID technology which lead most experts to feel smart cards are more secure. For instance, since RFID is a contactless identification technology, there are chances a nearby reader could read the tag and hence come to know the details of the products without the holder’s knowledge. In the case of smart cards, the information can be encrypted so only an authorized reader can access the information.

Finally, one of the sources of confusion arising between the two technologies occurs because proximity cards (which are RFID cards using 13.56 MHz) and contactless smart cards are both applicable in physical access control situations. Both cards use 13.56 MHz and can be used for door access to buildings and restricted areas. However, proximity cards can allow a read distance of up to 1.5 meters, while contactless smart cards have a read limit of 10 centimeters.

Keep in mind, the technology continues to evolve at a fast and furious pace. You may want to tap the expertise of a security consultant before finalizing your decision.

Elledge,facility/office services manager for Dallas, TX-based Summit AllianceCompanies, is the recipient of the Distinguished Author Award from theInternational Facility Management Association (IFMA), is an IFMA Fellow, and isa member of TFM’sEditorial Advisory Board. All questions have been submitted via the “Ask TheExpert” portion of the magazine’s Web site. To pose a question, visit this link.

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