Bluetooth low energy (BLE) and near field communication (NFC) are both forms of wireless communication which enable devices to communicate over short distances. Their use has become widespread over recent years, in fields as varied as retail, banking, healthcare and events management. However, the technologies are not identical and choosing which one to use depends very much on the circumstances in which you intend to use it. In this post, we’ll look at the differences between BLE and NFC so that you’ll have a better idea which one is right for you.
One of the key differences between Bluetooth and NFC is the distance over which they can transmit a signal. Using a beacon around the size of a small coin, BLE is able to transmit a signal up to a distance of 50 metres. NFC, on the other hand, is a very short-range technology that works over a distance of just 4cm. This occurs when an NFC tag, a small chip, communicates with an NFC enabled device, for example, a smartphone or a reader.
It is the distance over which the signal can be transmitted that makes each type of technology suitable for different purposes. In some circumstances, you may need longer range signals, in others, a shorter range is much more advantageous.
Both BLE and NFC can be used securely. Bluetooth uses the open information-sharing standard that transmits a secure outbound signal from the beacon to the receiving device. Any risk with Bluetooth depends not on the technology itself but with the security of the app which handles the data. To ensure that customers know they are in the range of a transmitting beacon, a push notification is sent to them.
NFC works completely differently. Its use of electromagnetic radio fields (RFID) creates a two-way communication channel that can be either secure or unsecured. Unlike BLE, where a device can connect anywhere within its 50m range, NFC users have to proactively choose to connect by approaching or tapping a tag. The act of approaching or tapping in order to connect is one of the security advantages of NFC’s 4cm range.
A growing number of devices are now able to work with both Bluetooth and NFC technologies, especially smartphones. Both work with Android 4.3 and above, Windows Phone 8 and Blackberry 10. With regards to Apple, BLE works on iOS7 and up whilst NFC works with iPhones 6, 7 and 8. The release of iOS 11, however, means NFC can now be used on a wider range of Apple devices.
Although Bluetooth low energy uses a lot less power than standard Bluetooth, transmitting signals over a distance of 50m means the beacon still requires a battery. These are similar to watch batteries and last for up to two years. Whilst the expense is minimal, it does mean that the beacon will need maintenance and there is a risk that it will stop transmitting when the battery runs out.
The limited distance over which an NFC signal is transmitted means that power can be generated without the need for a battery at all. It simply works by electromagnetic induction. In lay terms, the power is generated from the radio waves emitted from the smartphone, scanner or reader. This technology makes NFC exceptionally cost-effective and is one of the reasons why NFC tags are so inexpensive.
How BLE and NFC work in practice
One of the benefits of both technologies is that they can use the visitors’ location to communicate relevant information about products, services or offers. However, they do this in different ways. With BLE, a visitor’s smartphone can use the strength of the signal to register how near it is to a beacon. A store owner can use this data to inform them that there is something they may be interested in nearby, ‘Our coffee shop is on the next floor, drop in and get 10% off all drinks.’
With NFC, a consumer can engage with tags attached to products, labels or on POS materials within a location. For example, you could display a poster which, when tapped by the visitor, sends them a discount voucher to use at the checkout or lets them arrange for the product to be delivered.
Each of the technologies serves different purposes. If you had lots of deals going on in store, it would be annoying if the customer was bombarded by Bluetooth notifications every time they changed aisle. NFC lets the customer pick the deals they want. Bluetooth, on the other hand, is great for moving customers on to a location they may be interested in.
Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the two technologies can work in harmony together, for example, a BLE notification can be sent telling the visitor there is a sale in the next room and once the customer enters, they can use NFC to get deals on specific items.
Whilst both Bluetooth and NFC can be used for making payments on mobile phones, they operate in different ways. With BLE, the payment app checks in to inform the retailer that the consumer is present in the store. Then, during the checkout process, the retailer can verify the customer’s identity before completing the transaction.
NFC is different. During the checkout, the consumer simply opens their mobile wallet and taps their smartphone on the payment terminal. Their payment credentials are automatically retrieved from their smartphone’s secure wallet and transmitted securely, via NFC, to the payment terminal.
As both technologies work in a different way, you cannot simply compare the price of a BLE beacon with an NFC tag. A single beacon can cover up to 50 sqm of space you, so you might not need a lot of them on-site, whereas you might need many more tags, as they are used in more precise and targeted locations. However, a single beacon can cost anywhere from £10 to around £30, NFC tags are significantly cheaper; you can purchase them for as little as £1.00. Both, however, are affordable and offer significant ROI if used well.
Areas of use
There are countless places where these technologies can and are being used. Bluetooth, for example, is often used in high traffic areas, public venues and events, and in education and healthcare. NFC is utilised for things like transport passes, event ticketing and access cards, as well as in banking and public institutions. The ability to put NFC tags in smartcards, such as those available from Universal Smart Cards, makes them especially useful for these purposes.
Although BLE and NFC both enable short-range communication between devices, they are quite different from each other in terms of how they work and, most importantly, in how they can be used. This article should have given you an overview of their similarities and differences and how the two technologies can be used together.