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Next Flavor of UHF for RFID

Some heavy hitters have lined up behind a proposed specification for the next generation of RFID technology.

Thirteen companies, calling themselves the Unified Group, came out today in support of a proposed standard for ultra-high-frequency short-range communications.

The Class 1 Generation 2 technology, known as C1G2 or UHF Generation 2, would allow UHF, the most common frequency range used for case- and pallet-level tracking, to interoperate on an international level.

It's one of four competing to be designated as UHF Generation 2 by EPCglobal, the not-for-profit standards organization that's developing a universal electronic product code system and a global network to enable real-time, automatic identification of items in the supply chain.

Companies supporting the protocol include Royal Philips Electronics, Texas Instruments, , Impinj, SAMSys Technologies, Q.E.D Systems, Intermec Technologies, UNOVA and Applied Wireless Identifications Group (AWID).

Alien Technologies and Matrics, two RFID hardware suppliers, have put forth their own proposals, and the fourth is expected to be based on a variation of the proprietary Supertag protocol used in South Africa.

Donny V. Lee, chairman & CEO of AWID, a RFID component and sub-system supplier based in Monsey, N.Y., said his company's products support all the leading protocols, so making a decision to go in with the Unified Group was based as much on the business landscape as on technical factors.

While the data format is better than most, he said, "we looked at the maturity of the technology and also the group supporting each one, and decided the Unified Group is the one with the best opportunity to become the final standard." His group's proposed spec is based on technology developed by IBM and licensed to Intermec. "The company really pushing it is Phillips. They're the elephant in the room of little animals."

To date, there are two different protocols in use, Class 0 and Class 1, and they're not interoperable. That means that large retailers such as Wal-Mart or Target, which have mandated that their top suppliers begin to use RFID technology to automate the supply chain, either need to install two kinds of readers or else tell their suppliers what to use. Meanwhile, Matrics has added proprietary enhancements to its chips to add read/write functionality, dubbing them Class 0+.

"The reason Gen-2 is being developed is the use of UHF technology on a worldwide basis," said Dirk Morgenroth, segment marketing manager for Royal Philips Electronics, a member of the Unity Group.

"After spending time and attention on mandates such as Wal-Mart's, initially kicking off in the U.S., suppliers require something that can be used worldwide, because Wal-Mart gets products worldwide. That's why they're driving this specification."

Gen-2 will be backwards compatible with both Class 0 and Class 1, so that a Gen-2 reader will be able to read both kinds of chips, according to Mike Meranda, vice president of strategic planning and development for EPCglobal.

EPCglobal is working to meet the needs of all the stakeholders: RFID hardware and chip manufacturers, retailers and suppliers.

Manufacturers want to know as soon as possible what the spec is going to be and to try to have it incorporate anything that might give them a competitive advantage. Suppliers don't want to get stuck with non-compliant materials.

"If I'm one of the 800 pound gorillas that are issuing mandates, I want to make sure my opinion is in the marketplace is heard," Meranda said. "But really what I'm concerned about is that my trading partners have access to chips that are low-cost and accessible, and no one feels they got stuck with something."

While EPCglobal might hold a technology bake-off to determine the best choice for the spec, Morgenroth said there are other influences that factor into decision-making for the products. "The full process is to have a specification for the product that serves the user requirements to the best way."

Meranda said that in addition to the four self-contained proposals, the EPCglobal working group also has various lists of requirements from the user community. "Over the next few months, we'll try to reconcile all those. It could be that one of the self-contained proposals gets us 95 percent there. Or it could be that it's not that easy." The draft standard is scheduled to be ratified by the EPCglobal technical steering committee in September 2004, and compliant tags and readers could enter the market early in 2005.



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