In recent industry discussions, many bloggers and talking heads are comparing BLE to NFC in terms of technology, applications, and potential. Although BLE and NFC are rapidly becoming major players in the retail environment, it’s important to understand what each one is and what it does.

The basic idea

BLE: a one-way signal

Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, operates on a one-way principle. BLE beacons transmit constant Bluetooth signals over a defined radius. Beacons only transmit; they do not search for or receive signals in return.

BLE signals can pass through walls and other barriers that typically obstruct Wi-Fi and cell signals.

NFC: a two-way channel

Near-field communication, or NFC, operates on a two-way principle. Some NFC devices interact with one another to send information back and forth over radio waves. For example, NFC terminals send out transaction information and receive payment information.

Transmitters

BLE beacons

BLE beacons are matchbox-sized transmitters that broadcast Bluetooth signals constantly. Most beacons have a broadcasting range of up to 200 feet. They are transmission-only, so they do not receive signals in return.

NFC tags and terminals

NFC tags are postage stamp-sized transmitters that broadcast radio signals when another NFC-enabled device is brought into close proximity (within a few centimeters). They use the incoming signals to generate their own power, which allows them to send signals to the other device. Beyond activating when NFC signals are broadcast in their proximity, NFC tags don’t use incoming signals to perform any functions. They are effectively broadcast-only.

NFC terminals, which are EMV-compliant terminals that are NFC-enabled, are credit card terminals that recognize nearby NFC-enabled devices and can establish communications with them to complete transactions. Typically, an NFC transaction involves the customer selecting a card from his or her mobile wallet, then waving the phone over the terminal or tapping the phone against the terminal.

For more information about EMV NFC-enabled terminals, contact an HMS sales representative.

Devices

BLE: restricted to Bluetooth devices

As the name implies, BLE requires that a device be Bluetooth-enabled in order for it to receive signals. For the majority of users, this means BLE is limited to smartphones and some tablets. Currently, iOS7 and Android 4.3 support BLE.

NFC: available via smartphone, NFC sticker, or EMV

NFC offers more options. EMV cards and terminals operate on NFC protocols during contactless transactions. Additionally, smartphones with NFC chips or NFC payment stickers can be used during these transactions. Beyond payment possibilities, smartphones with the proper apps can be used to read information from NFC stickers.

NFC compatibility varies by phone, and NFC is a less common phone characteristic than Bluetooth compatibility. Currently, Android, Windows Phone 8, and Blackberry support NFC.

Apps

BLE

In order to receive, recognize, and act on BLE signals, a smartphone has to have an app that is programmed to recognize and read those signals. Each beacon transmits a unique signal, and only apps programmed to identify that particular signal can recognize it. This prevents one retailer’s app from attempting to execute actions based on signals from another retailer’s beacons.

Apple’s proprietary iBeacon protocols, which are part of its iOS 7 mobile operating system, allow an iPhone or iPad to automatically recognize incoming BLE signals, identify them, and launch the appropriate app to handle them.

Non-iOS 7 devices must have the app open while the signal is being broadcast; only if the app is running will it detect and act on the signal.

NFC

In order to transmit, receive, recognize, and act on NFC signals, a smartphone has to have an app that is programmed to control those signals. Signal uniqueness works in much the same way that it does in BLE.

NFC devices need to be actively transmitting in the proximity of an NFC tag in order to receive a return transmission, and the app needs to be running in order for the device to recognize the signal and execute actions based on its identity. In short, consumers need to open the app and hold the phone near an NFC entity in order to “read” it.