Lockheed Martin wants a new RFID rule at 433 MHz that allows higher power and imposes fewer restrictions.

Our friends over at Lockheed Martin have asked the FCC to update its RFID technical rules.

RFID (short for radio frequency identification) is one of those technologies that most of use every day without giving it much thought. Automatic toll collection, variously branded E-ZPass, I-Pass, Fast Lane, etc., is one example. Many workplaces use electronic keys in the form of a card that, when touched to a sensor, unlocks doors and starts elevators. Modern cars will not start until the key makes a successful radio communication with a sensor in the dash.

All of these devices work the same way. A “reader,” such as the one mounted over the E-ZPass toll lane, sends out a radio signal. A “tag,” such as the little box mounted on a car’s windshield,  accumulates energy from that signal, and when it is sufficiently charged, uses the stored-up power to transmit the tag’s specific ID number back to the reader. The reader passes that number on to a database for appropriate action, such as debiting the driver’s E-ZPass account.

The FCC regulates this kind of RFID as an unlicensed device under Part 15 of its rules. (Another kind of RFID uses battery-powered tags for greater range.) A manufacturer must comply with either of two rule sections. One allows operation on any frequency above 70 MHz, but only at very low power, and only in short bursts with long waiting times in between. The other rule section allows longer transmissions and shorter waiting times, but can be used only to identify the contents of commercial shipping containers at ports, warehouses, and the like, and must use the band 433.5-434.5 MHz.

Lockheed Martin likes the 433 MHz band, which is becoming a global standard. It has asked the FCC to adopt a new, third rule that includes the following elements:

  • allowing any application, not just shipping container identification;
  • increasing the band to 433.05-434.79 MHz;
  • increasing the allowable power;
  • requiring devices to use a “listen-before-talk” protocol to make sure the band is free before transmitting;
  • allowing transmissions as long as 10 seconds, and waiting periods as short as one second; and
  • allowing bi-directional communications between RFID devices.

Complete details on the Lockheed Martin proposal are here. The docket number is RM-11651. Initial comments are due on January 13, 2012 and reply comments on January 30. Note that the FCC’s public notice of the proposal is simply that – a notice indicating that the Lockheed Martin proposal has been filed and inviting comments. If, after taking a good look at the proposal and any comments, the FCC decides the idea has merit, a standard notice-and-comment rulemaking procedure will still be necessary before any or all of the proposal can be formally adopted into the rulebook.