RFID: BT says 'yes', survey says 'no'

BT is pushing the idea of RFID services but a survey claims UK companies are still wary of the technology

BT has announced that a newly created business unit will use software agent technology to help companies better manage radio frequency identification (RFID) projects. But despite increased momentum, research this week claims RFID is failing to catch on in UK companies.

As ZDNet UK reported exclusively last week, BT has created a special business unit to focus on RFID implementations -- BT Auto-ID Services. The telco has released some more details about the unit, including the fact that it will provide a suite of managed RFID services that will integrate with customers' existing ERP and warehouse management software.

BT Auto-ID Services chief executive Ross Hall likened the infrastructure around RFID to the telephone network, with BT in the middle acting as central hub or switch -- feeding in data from tags and dishing out information to a company's internal systems. "BT's expertise in IP infrastructure and data management, combined with our unrivalled global network, makes BT the obvious choice for highly scalable and secure Auto-ID services," he said.

BT Auto-ID will provide the tag and reader infrastructure for customers' products or inventory and then route the resulting data over broadband links to its own data processing centre, where the information will be converted into a form that can be pumped back into a company's existing systems. On receiving the data from a customer's site, the BT platform will use agent technology to manage its distribution of data to various sites in the customer's supply chain.

But despite the momentum behind RFID technology, BT claims to have a realistic view on how long the technology will take to become pervasive. "RFID is often referred to as a 'better barcode' but the reality is that both technologies are likely to co-exist for the foreseeable future. That's why we support barcode applications as well as RFID," said BT's Ross.

A report published this week claims that despite the fact that the UK has to be at "the fore of RFID testing and development", 85 percent of companies have no plans to introduce the technology into their organisation.

The survey, from not-for-profit organisation e.centre, showed that while 88 percent of companies questioned saw the benefits of RFID to enhance their supply-chain and inventory systems, only eight percent are using or piloting RFID in their organisations.

E.centre's chief executive, Steve Cousins said the results of the survey revealed an alarming and widespread indifference to a technology that will bring significant benefits to businesses. "RFID is here to stay. It will enable all trading partners in a supply chain, in any industry sector, to track and trace products in real-time," he said.

E.centre is part of EAN International, a not-for-profit organisation, which is promoting the EPCglobal Network standard for RFID. The lack of standards around RFID has been identified as one of the chief impediments to more widespread adoption of the technology.

Geoffrey O'Neil, director of strategic projects for Woolworths UK, which is carrying out a large scale RFID trial said there needs to be an international collaboration on RFID standards for the technology to be a real success. "We need cooperation on a global basis. We don't want different flavours of RFID developing in clusters around the world," he said.

BT claims to have been at the "forefront of RFID thinking" for many years and had its first practical involvement with the technology as part of the UK Government's initial road-pricing trials in 1994. The Telco also ran one of the Home Office's Chipping of Goods projects in conjunction with Dell.