Growin' on empty: RFID's many uses outpace available funds

Traffic approaches tollbooths in the Bronx in New York. RFID technology fuels the EZPass systems for tolls, but expanding numbers of other uses for the technology are ahead of state and local government means to fund them.

Chris Minerva

Cars paying electronically as they zip through a toll booth might be just the tip of the iceberg of the many ways state and local governments can use radio frequency identification technology.

Systems integrators are developing new RFID solutions not only for transportation, but also to improve business processes associated with public safety, criminal justice and motor vehicle administration.

Although state and local officials caution that adoption might be slowed considerably by a shortage of funds and lack of standards, they are hoping that in the months ahead an infusion of federal dollars for homeland security and transportation will fuel at least modest expansion of new projects.

"Even though they may have a very active interest in it, finding the available resources for it is difficult right now," said Gerry Wethington, vice president for homeland security and justice and public safety programs at Unisys Corp.

Eric Topp of IBM Corp. agreed. "They see it on the horizon as something to use," said Topp, senior consultant for business process design with IBM's Business Consulting Services.

So close, so far

State and local government has been using RFID for many years as the linchpin of electronic toll collection and to assist with regulating interstate truck traffic. At the same time, there has been scarcely any deployment of the technology for supply-chain management as the Defense Department and giant retailers such as Wal-Mart are using it.

Despite its use in the transportation sector, RFID is still a long way from being an integral part of day-to-day operations and business processes of state and local government, Wethington said.

Still, systems integrators and their partners are confident that the success Wal-Mart and others have had deploying RFID for supply-chain management will make their prospective clients more open to using it to meet inventory management and security needs.

"RFID as a technology is not new, but the advances are more visible now with the DOD and Wal-Mart initiatives," said Bill Schick, vice president and global industry frameworks leader for consumer goods, retail, media and entertainment with EDS Corp.

State and local customers now are more receptive to RFID, because they view it as part of the larger wave of wireless technology projects sweeping the government market, said David Greer, general manager for secure asset solutions at Motorola Inc.

"Wireless technologies are becoming more pervasive in general, and RFID is one of the potentially enabling wireless technologies that can be deployed," he said.

A telling sign that RFID is ready to expand throughout both public and private sectors is that there are about 1,000 companies focused on the technology, said Jeff Vining, a research vice president for homeland security with market research firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

The companies range from integrators to original equipment and software providers to hardware manufacturers, he said.

Nearly a dozen large systems integrators, including Accenture Ltd., Affiliated Computer Services Inc., BearingPoint Inc., Computer Sciences Corp., Deloitte, EDS, IBM, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Unisys, are fine-tuning their capabilities and forging partnerships to prepare for RFID-related opportunities in the government market.

RFID will unfold in waves throughout state and local government, said Jim Krouse, state and local market analysis manager for market research firm Input Inc. of Reston, Va. The first wave might involve commercial trucking, the second wave might target borders and ports, and the third wave might address traffic management.

State and local government "is barely scratching the surface right now" in these areas, Krouse said.

ACS has a firm grip on RFID for revenue collection and regulatory compliance in the transportation sector. Nine states now use the company's EZPass electronic toll program, and 24 states use its PrePass program to weigh and monitor the credentials of trucks crossing state lines.

RFID could be deployed more broadly not only as an integral part of intelligent transportation initiatives, but also for better transportation security, said Michael Huerta, ACS' senior vice president and managing director of transportation systems.

RFID could be used for real-time tracking of commuters' patterns as part of managing traffic congestion, or it could be used to track hazardous materials on interstate highways, he said.

No longer alone

RFID is quickly moving from being viewed as a standalone technology to one that can be blended with complementary technologies into more robust solutions, industry officials said. Several companies are experimenting with this approach.

EDS is focusing on bundling together RFID and biosensor technologies for supply-chain management and homeland security purposes, Schick said. "We're looking at how to mesh the two technologies together," he said.

IBM is bringing to market the Tamper Resistant Embedded Controller, or TREC, Topp said, which can be deployed in cargo containers for monitoring security and supply-chain parameters, and for the logging and alerting of critical events. TREC functions through various wireless communications methods, one of which is RFID, and includes sensors to monitor conditions such as humidity, motion or light.

Unisys is trying to expand its work with major ports in the wake of its participation in the Homeland Security Department's Operation Safe Commerce pilot. The company has an RFID project with the Port of Seattle and is hoping to expand the solution to other ports in the region, Wethington said.

Unisys also is pursuing a pilot project with the Texas Animal Health Commission that could serve as a national model for identifying and tracking livestock. The National Animal Identification System is a federally funded project that, if rolled out nationally, would let states track livestock through various marketing venues. Using RFID tags and readers, it also would compile data that could be used in the event of disease outbreaks and other health issues.

As the demand for RFID grows, state and local governments will use federal funding for transportation and homeland security to help them implement RFID projects and initiatives, Krouse said. But to get federal funding, they must have technology that complies with standards as they are established, he said.

"The funding likely will be tied to standards," Krouse said. "And those standards will be paramount to receiving the grants." n

Senior Writer William Welsh can be reached at

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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