NFC vs. Bluetooth LE: When to use which

Near-field communications and Bluetooth LE are low-power wireless technologies suited for different uses in enterprises.

A distributed network of wireless connections spans a cityscape.
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Among many options for low-power, relatively short-ranged connectivity, two technologies stand out – near-field communication and Bluetooth low energy. Both have relatively low deployment costs and are simple to use.

NFC is best known for being the technology behind many modern smart cards. NFC chips need to be very close – within a few centimeters – to a reader for a connection to be made, but that’s an upside in its primary enterprise use case, which is security and access control.

Bluetooth LE is a low-power derivative of the main Bluetooth standard, offsetting lower potential throughput with substantially reduced energy consumption and the consequent ability to fit into a wider range of potential use cases.

Next, we’ll delve into more in-depth descriptions of each technology and their primary use cases.

NFC features

NFC operates at near-contact ranges – devices must be within several centimeters of each other in order to make contact. A readable passive NFC “tag” requires no independent power source at all, drawing energy from the initiator’s signal, which operates at around 13.5MHz and requires between 100 and 700 µA of power when actively reading a tag.

“The short range is actually an advantage,” said Gartner research senior director and analyst Bill Ray. “The big thing about NFC is that it’s not just the radio, there’s a massive security protocol built-in.” That is, a potential bad actor would have to be very close – within a few meters, using specialized equipment – to even be able to detect an NFC connection taking place. NFC implementations can also layer on SSL technology for additional safety.

That’s not a surprise, given NFC’s origins as a contactless payment technology. Its roots in that area create an appeal for retailers, which could use NFC to let customers get additional information about items before they buy, get coupons or ask for assistance from a clerk simply by touching their phones to an NFC hotspot.

While the short range involved has limited the number of use cases that make sense for NFC technology, it’s not solely about opening doors and buying lattes. NFC can be used to bootstrap connections for quick and easy pairing between devices, so a user could simply tap their phone on a properly equipped projector in a conference room to create an NFC connection, validate that the smartphone is an approved device to connect to, and give a presentation. The presentation or video data itself wouldn’t be transferred via NFC, but the NFC handshake acts as a validation for a different wireless protocol, eliminating the need to sign into, for example, a Wi-Fi network, or any other higher-bandwidth network that could stream that data.

Bluetooth LE characteristics

Bluetooth LE, by contrast, operates over substantially longer distances – anywhere up to several dozen meters – and has about twice the maximum bandwidth of an NFC connection at 1 Mbit/second. It’s an outgrowth of the well-known Bluetooth technology, optimized for machine-to-machine connectivity, thanks to its lower power usage than the main-line standard. It uses less than 15 mA of power at either end of a connection, and has a practical range of about 10 meters, securing connections with AES encryption.

Yet it’s far from a drop-in replacement for NFC, according to Forrester principal analyst Andre Kindness.

“From an information transfer perspective [NFC is] a lot quicker than BLE,” he said. BLE usually takes an appreciable fraction of a second or longer to identify and secure a connection, while that process is more or less instantaneous with NFC.

Bluetooth LE, however, is considerably more versatile than NFC, thanks to its greater range, according to IDC senior research analyst Patrick Filkins.

“I think Bluetooth [LE] is a little better suited for enterprise,” he said. Use cases like asset tracking, indoor navigation, and targeted advertisements are just the tip of the iceberg.

For enterprises, then, the upshot is fairly straightforward – NFC use cases are mostly separate from those for which a company would use Bluetooth, but, for the rare overlap where a choice can be made, the relative advantages and disadvantages are clear. NFC is very short-ranged, cheap, connects instantly and has a lower data transfer rate. Bluetooth LE works over much longer distances and at higher speeds, costs somewhat more and takes a moment to “handshake” its connections.

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