Is smartphone technology the future for access control?

Mobile devices are everywhere and they’re changing the way we live and work.

They are also changing the way many organisations manage access control.

A 2017 study by research group Gartner found that 20 per cent of organisations expected to use mobile credentials for physical access control by 2020. This compares to just 5 per cent that were using the technology to manage access in 2016.

The demand for smartphone-based access control solutions is growing. But what does that look like? How does it work? And what do you need to know?

How does it work?

For the user, smartphone-based access control works much the same way as a standard RFID access card. You present your phone to the reader, where your credentials are checked against those held by the access control system, and access is granted or denied.

As for the technology behind it, the good news is most modern smartphones are already equipped with the technology needed for a smartphone-based access control system.

Most of us are familiar with Bluetooth but may be less so with Near Field Communication (NFC). NFC is very similar to Bluetooth, but there some key differences to be aware of with regard to their impact in an access control setting.

Bluetooth is fairly standard across all modern smartphones. However, while most Android and Windows phones are equipped with an NFC chip that allows the phone to read NFC tags, the chip in NFC capable iPhones can currently only be used for payment using Apple Pay. However, NFC tags can be fitted externally to these phones, as well as to bracelets, key rings and a range of other applications.

Another key difference is in their ranges. Bluetooth works from 10 m to 100 m, while NFC works best when the devices are around 4 cm apart. It is worth noting that a greater range is not necessarily a good thing in an access control setting as it leaves the connection at greater risk of interference, whether intentional or not. NFC is also easier to use. Bluetooth requires users to manually set up a connection, where NFC connects automatically.

Finally, NFC consumes little power when compared to standard Bluetooth technology. It is worth nothing, however, that Bluetooth low energy (BLE) uses less power than NFC and is suitable for specific uses with limited data transfer, within a distance of around 10 m, making it well suited for access control.

What do you need to know?

Centaman Entrance Control General Manager Michael Bystram says the use of mobile phone credentials for access control offers a lot of benefits.

“The most obvious is in the sheer convenience. Most of us have our smartphones on us at all times; it’s not an extra thing to remember or carry.

“It’s also quick and easy to set up for new employees. You can send them a link to download the app, provide them with a code and then they’re up and running.”

The same quick, easy set-up makes the technology ideal for businesses that use a large number of contractors. Smartphone-based systems can be remotely provisioned for contractors so RFID access cards don’t have to be issued. It also means there’s no access card to turn in at the end of the job as access can be revoked remotely.

For both NFC and Bluetooth, the app doesn’t need to be opened to gain access, but the phone must be turned on and ‘awake’, which can be problematic for those who like to live dangerously and often run their phone battery until it dies. However, this does offer another benefit, Mr Bystram says.

“A smartphone-based access control solution also benefits from an extra layer of security, as most people require some form of authentication – a pass code or biometrics (face or fingerprint recognition) – to unlock their phones.”

Centaman Entrance Control is currently working on several Bluetooth-based access control system deployments in both New Zealand and Australia.

Mr Bystram says early Bluetooth and NFC systems were expensive, inconvenient and of variable reliability – but the technology has come a long way in a short period of time.

“We’re starting to see not only more demand for smartphone-based access control solutions, but also considerable improvements in the technology.

“Smartphone-based solutions may well be the future for access control, but their use will always depend on a client’s security needs and the setting.”