Access control is nothing new. Locks on doors and windows are a rudimentary form of shutting people out. While not the most effective means of control, plenty of facilities use it as their only means of security. ID cards are nothing new either. The drivers' license, although easily faked by any computer savvy-teen, is considered one of the best forms of identification.

The demand for secure buildings, facilities, plants, campuses and military installations creates another source of work for contractors, since they can design, install, test and maintain various types of security systems.

The 'smart' smart card

One of the latest, greatest innovations in the security industry is the smart card. These cards are a high-tech versions of a basic ID card with one major added feature: a computer chip. Embedded in the card, the chip can store and manipulate -information.

The cards are read one of two ways: being physically swiped through a card reader or being swiped through a wireless, contactless interface. For the card to be read without being swiped, it needs to have an antenna that transmits information over radio frequencies (RF). That type of system operation is called radio frequency identification, or RFID.

Though closely related to a traditional contact smart card system, the contactless system is powered and operational when in proximity to a reader. The card and reader need to be within four inches of one another for information transfer to occur. Readers need to be located at every access point for the most effective security.

According to Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of Smart Card Alliance, to support smart cards for physical access, all of the access readers must be capable of reading a smart card.

This means that when systems are upgraded from traditional ID/access cards to smart cards, the readers also need to be upgraded. For contractors, this means a host of wiring and installation -opportunities.

Benefits of the smart card system

Why upgrade to a smart card system?

“Smart cards are more secure, store more cardholder data-such as PIN and biometric data-and can be used to access computer files and replace user name and passwords for remote access to networked systems,” said Vanderhoof.

They are also read/writeable meaning information stored can be easily changed, further adding to the heightened security feature.

There may be some confusion as to whether contactless smart cards are a new version of RFID. The answer is no-they are two entirely different technologies. They both operate though RF technology but have different applications.

“One can say that contactless smart cards are getting smarter, while RFID tags are getting dumber,” said the Smart Card Alliance.

RFID tags are getting smaller and cheaper, causing the RFID capabilities to diminish.

Nowadays, RFID tags have become single-function, single-application tags that store minimal amounts of data. Most RFID tags are used for inventory tracking, which does not require much space to store information.

Contactless smart cards are a whole different ball game. Unlike RFID tags, smart cards need to house a large amount of information in order to verify identity.

That information also needs to be accessible so that it can be altered. This explains why the read/write function is important, as opposed to the read-only aspect of RFID tags.

Contractors cash in

Contractors can cash in on enhanced access control systems such as smart card solutions. Contractors can now work on the physical access control systems while also delving into smart card technology.

Though back-end software and IT support is needed for operation, card readers need proper installation and maintenance. This leads building owners and operators right back to their trusted business partners-their “go-to” electrical contractors. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.