Are parents ready to send their kids off to school with RFID tags attached to their ID cards, backpacks, and books? The folks at AT&T should get a reading on that very soon. Last month, the company rolled out RFID-based products and services that will allow schools to track assets, students, visitors, and staff, a move that will surely draw fire from privacy advocates. The application— marketed specifically to K-12 facilities—works in conjunction with GPS-based mobile resource management services as well as the carrier's wireless data network and hosted applications.
The use of RFID and GPS technology to keep tabs on expensive machinery and laptop computers is becoming increasingly common, especially in the medical field. But U.S. consumers have been slow to accept the technology, especially when it is used to monitor the whereabouts of individuals. RFID for people-tracking applications is becoming more widely accepted in Europe, where some schools already use the technology for that purpose. However, a test of a similar application in California two years ago was halted when parents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) objected on privacy grounds.
AT&T maintains that school districts can benefit enormously from using RFID and GPS to track school buses. The technology would allow them to monitor the buses' locations, speed, and condition while on the road as well as to report on events occurring inside the vehicles. RFID could also enable school districts to improve student safety and save money by routing their school buses more efficiently and by cutting down on fuel, maintenance, and labor expenses.
Efficiency and cost are not the only potential benefits of deploying such a system, says one analyst. "In today's world of K through 12 education, enhanced visibility regarding the location of students, teachers, and valuable assets is crucial," says Bill Hughes, principal analyst for In- Stat, a research group that analyzes the wireless systems market. "By introducing mobile technology such as RFID … school districts can … enhance student and teacher safety."
Albatross, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Pearl Informatics Pvt. Ltd., is marketing a similar service for students in India. The company notes that RFID can be used to record crucial data like medical records, school attendance, and report cards. Data could be obtained from cell phones equipped with near-field communication devices. In a published report, R. Shanker, CEO of Albatross, said that RFID could fill the same functions as Social Security numbers.
Applications like asset tracking and real-time location services continue to drive growth in the RFID market, which is expected to reach $8.4 billion in 2012. A forecast released late last year by ABI Research's Mike Liard calls for annual growth of 21 percent over the next five years. ABI pegged the 2007 worldwide market at $3.8 billion, which represents a 24-percent increase over the previous year.
"Given the recent amount of activity and anticipation surrounding RFID technology, one might be tempted to believe the RFID market has been experiencing explosive growth," says Liard. "But while uptake of full-scale RFID systems remains slower than many in the industry had hoped, steady growth continues. There is an overall sense of cautious optimism in the market."
Liard notes that although few large RFID implementations have been announced lately, extensive pilot programs and closed-loop deployments are demonstrating solid cost justification for RFID. For example, asset tracking in health care, workin- process tracking in manufacturing, and the tracking of returnable transport items like pallets and containers can provide a significant return on investment. Liard adds that the fashion apparel and footwear item-tagging market is undergoing heavy pilot and trial activity, especially within Europe at retailers like Marks and Spencer, and Metro.