A 2017 Gartner study had predicted a four-fold increase in the number of organisations that will use mobile credentials for physical access control by 2020. Only 5 per cent of companies were using smartphone technology to manage access in 2016 against the expected 20 per cent in 2020.

Given the pervasiveness of mobile devices in everyday life and how they are changing the way we live and work, is smartphone technology the future of access control?

As the demand for smartphone-based access control solutions continues to grow, here’s everything you need to know about the technology.

How does it work?

Smartphone-based access control works much the same way as a standard RFID access card – you present your phone to the reader, your credentials are checked against those held by the access control system, and access is granted or denied. Most modern mobile devices are already equipped with the technology needed for a smartphone-based access control system, simplifying the transition and integration.

While Bluetooth is a familiar term for many of us, Near Field Communication (NFC) isn’t. Though there are some similarities, there are also key differences that one should be aware of with regard to NFC’s impact in an access control setting.

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

Bluetooth and NFC also differ in their ranges. While Bluetooth works from 10m to 100m, NFC works best when the devices are around 4cm apart. A higher 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 superior to Bluetooth in terms of ease of use. Bluetooth requires users to manually set up a connection, whereas NFC connects automatically.

Also, NFC scores better in power consumption, requiring minimal power when compared to standard Bluetooth technology. However, Bluetooth low energy (BLE) uses less power than NFC and is suitable for specific uses with limited data transfer within a distance of around 10m, making it well suited for access control.

What do you need to know?

Centaman Entrance Control General Manager Michael Bystram enumerates the many benefits of using mobile phone credentials for access control.

“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.”

This quick and easy setup 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, which can be problematic for those who habitually run their phone battery until it dies.

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

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

Observing that early Bluetooth and NFC systems were expensive, inconvenient and of variable reliability, Bystram notes that 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.”