Locks and keys ring up huge costs for education institutions. When a student forgets a residence hall key, someone has to let the student in. When a student loses a key, a locksmith has to cut a new key and re-key the lock. On a campus with thousands of students, such problems can use up hours of expensive time.
No wonder many facility directors and public-safety directors have turned to automated access-control systems with magnetic-stripe cards, proximity cards and, most recently, smart cards.
Smart cards can provide a host of on- and off-campus services beyond security. In addition to serving as identification credentials and opening access-controlled doors, they can facilitate purchases at vending machines by accessing debit accounts, checking books out from the library and much more.
Around the corner
An emerging technology called near field communication (NFC) enables smartphones to do everything a contactless smart card can do—and then some.
Devices enabled with NFC can communicate with each other. An NFC-enabled smartphone, for instance, could pay for merchandise in a store. The buyer would open up a credit card app and present the phone to an NFC-enabled credit card reader. The phone would transmit the credit card number to the reader, which would process the transaction with lightning speed.
On campus, NFC technology can play a role in campus safety and security. By enabling contactless smart card access-control readers with NFC, students, faculty and staff could use smartphones to gain access to residence halls and other buildings across campus.
Why is that a good idea? The system is simple to administer and to use. It eliminates the cost of buying and printing tens of thousands of smart cards, which can cost $2 to $10 or more per card. It enhances security, and students want it. NFC-enabled smartphones can do anything a smart card can do.
An easier way
To start up such a system, a system administrator would create an electronic mobile key, enabling access to appropriate doors, for each member of the campus community.
The keys are stored in a secure cloud environment accessible only by those with an activated PIN number. Next, e-mail invitations would be sent to the community explaining the system and inviting everyone to enroll. The invitation would include a unique PIN number for each recipient.
Upon receiving an invitation, a student could do nothing and continue using a card, or he or she could download an access app and enroll in the system by using the PIN number to log onto the cloud and download the mobile key created by the administrator.
To use the app to enter a residence hall, a student would open the app and tap the phone on the reader—which, of course, must be NFC-enabled.
An NFC-enabled campus can replace a one-card offering with a one-phone system that does everything a one-card program can do. Enable the campus laundry facilities, vending machines, library checkout desk, cafeteria and other campus facilities with NFC, and smartphones can replace plastic.
Moreover, NFC can make a smartphone into an educational tool. The campus art gallery, for instance, could have an app that visitors can download upon entering. During the walkthrough, visitors can tap their phones on enabled NFC buttons to call up audiovisual presentations about artists and their work.
Smart card-based access-control systems require expensive support. The university must buy printers, ink, a card inventory and other supplies. At enrollment time, someone must print ID badges for each student.
But as more and more students, faculty and staff opt in to a smartphone credentialing system, costs related to cards will fall lower and lower.
Lost cards also cost time and money to replace. Not so with a phone. If a phone is lost, the administrator can disable the credentials in the lost phone remotely—just as with any card system.
The big difference lies in provisioning a new phone. It can be done online in seconds—the phone and its owner need not even be present.
NFC smartphone credentials are at least as secure as contactless smart cards. People tend to use their smartphones constantly and rarely let them out of their sight; smartphones are lost less often than cards.
When a smartphone does go missing, its owner usually notices right away and can have the credentials disabled. A missing card might not be noticed for hours, and whoever finds it would be able to use it until the owner discovers the loss and has the card disabled.
What students want
In May 2011, a manufacturer of access-control systems commissioned Ducker Worldwide Research to conduct three surveys studying student attitudes toward smartphones.
Researchers questioned 1,300 students and decisionmakers at 980 colleges and universities, public and private, two-year and four-year. The findings showed that two-thirds of students were interested in using their cell phones to replace their campus ID cards.
In addition, half of all students identify their cell phones as their favorite personal electronic device. Almost half already use cell phone apps to manage classwork, check grades, e-mail professors, receive notifications and alerts, and carry out other tasks.
Not here yet
Campus card administrators interested in NFC need not spend a lot of money to enable the campus all at once.
NFC is an emerging technology that is popular in Asia, catching on in Europe and just arriving in the United States. But market research indicates that the technology is poised to explode over the next couple of years.
Berg Insight, a Gothenburg, Sweden-based research firm specializing in the telecom industry, says that sales of NFC-enabled handsets increased by a factor of 10 in 2011, to 30 million units.
That’s just the beginning. Berg projects a compound annual growth rate of 87.8 percent, with shipments surging to 700 million handsets in 2016.
NFC isn’t here yet, but it is coming soon. Card administrators with an interest in the technology should begin investigating what it will take to enable a campus with NFC.
Sidebar: Case study: Villanova University pilot tests NFC access control
In 2011-2012, students and staff at Villanova University, Villanova, Pa., used smartphones as credentials to gain access to residence halls, academic buildings and administrative offices.
Campus card and IT administrators at Villanova University were testing near field communications (NFC) technology and smartphones as access-control tools. The goal was to find out if the technology would be convenient for students and staff and as easy to administer as the campus card system.
In November 2011, 53 students and staff used their NFC-enabled smartphones to download an app. Participants then opened the app and downloaded their security credentials directly to their phones.
To enter buildings, a participant would open the app and tap the phone on the NFC-enabled access-control reader. The NFC credential also integrates with the school’s campus card system.
“Today’s students are so technologically advanced that it is second nature for them to put everything on their phones and, most of the time, it’s already in their hands while walking across campus,” says Kathy Gallagher, director of card services at Villanova. “It’s easier for a student to use an app on the phone vs. digging for a card.” “Using smartphones as badges saves time that can be better spent on other issues,” says John Bonass, Villanova’s systems manager. “Assigning the credential to the students’ phone takes less work than printing and delivering a badge, and since students are very protective of their phones, this should lead to a greatly reduced replacement rate.”
The students approved of the system. In a survey of the 31 students participating in the pilot, more than 70 percent indicated a preference for using a phone instead of a badge to enter buildings.