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Arizona students first to trial mobile phones with NFC for door access

Chris Corum   ||   Sep 14, 2011  ||   ,

HID, Arizona State pilot multiple handsets, carriers and apps on campus

As the Fall semester geared up at Arizona State University, something revolutionary was happening in one of the residence halls. Select students living in Palo Verde Main were no longer using their Sun Card to gain access. Instead they were using cell phones.

Compared to most residences, Palo Verde Main was already considered advanced in access control circles. For six years, contactless technology in the student ID card had granted access to the building. But in August, a group of students and staff became the first in the country to use smart phones equipped with near field communication (NFC) technology instead of keys or cards.

ASU worked with HID Global on the pilot. The company’s contactless iCLASS technology powers the student ID known as the Sun Card and HID readers secure residences, offices and labs throughout the Tempe campus.

Though the pilot came together rapidly, the spark for it was years in the making. “Three-years ago I began to notice a lot of press around NFC,” says Laura Ploughe, director of Business Applications and Fiscal Control for University Business Services at Arizona State University. “I mentioned it to my HID rep and about a week later he sent me news clip from ASSA ABLOY hospitality with a photo showing a phone opening a door.”

It was an “aha” moment. She realized the phone was the ubiquitous device that would really change things. “I stuck the news clip on my wall with a pushpin and it has been there ever since,” she says.

At a trade show this spring, Ploughe saw a demonstration of HID’s new iCLASS line based on its Secure Identity Object concept. Called iCLASS SE, short for Secure Identity Object-enabled, it allows the access credential to be stored on cards, fobs, phones and other devices. “It was a dream come true,” she explains. “I could see live what was under that pushpin on my wall.”

From dream to reality

Ploughe told her contacts at HID that she would love to be involved if they needed a pilot location. “Never in my life did I think they’d say yes,” she laughs. But by early summer, agreements were in place and planning commenced.

“I thought we’d take a 24-week timeline for a pilot,” says Ploughe. “But the timeline was shortened when we began talking to stakeholders.”

Ploughe works in University Business Services. Among other things, the division oversees the Sun Card program and the Electric Door Access and Surveillance program. She approached her colleagues in University Housing for support, as they would be crucial to the success of the pilot.

“We looked at where it would best fit in the school calendar,” she says. “Housing agreed to participate but wanted to do it during early move-in to ensure there was no disruption to student learning.” That dictated an August launch, so a single discussion shortened the original timeline from 24 weeks to just eight weeks.

Shaping the pilot

On Aug. 1 the hardware and equipment for the pilot was installed. Internal communications were sent to stakeholders including the police department and facilities to make sure they weren’t alarmed when news spread that cell phones were opening residence hall doors.

The following week HID Global staff trained campus technicians and the lock maintenance group.

On Aug. 10 new phones were given to the students and staff participating in the pilot. In all 32 participants – 27 students and five staff – were provided NFC-equipped phones to use as they lived life in and around Palo Verde Main.

The hall was not selected by accident. It houses many of ASU’s engineering students, individuals with an obvious technical acuity. “We picked Community Assistants (resident assistants) because they have single rooms and are both responsive and responsible,” says Ploughe.

As for the staff participants, Ploughe explains, “we wanted a couple of people from facilities to be able to test the system and we also chose staff from the residence hall to assist with technical support.”

A matrix of handsets, carriers and apps

“Because this was a pilot, we decided it would be good to have multiple brands of smart phones,” explains Deb Spitler, HID Global ‘s VP of HID Connect. Participants were outfitted with one of three handsets: RIM’s BlackBerry Bold 9650, Samsung’s Android (multiple models) or Apple’s iPhone 4G.

Handsets with embedded NFC functionality are not widely available so the pilot relied on microSD cards and sleeves for the NFC functionality. Three separate carriers – AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile – were used for mobile services.

Two separate apps were used to carry the electronic credentials. The BlackBerry and iPhone users ran ASSA ABLOY’s Mobile Keys Application while Android users ran a mobile access application from HID.

Each participant received a fully provisioned phone with unlimited voice and text service. At the outset, the hope was to use the students’ existing smart phones. “We surveyed them to find out if they had a phone that we could enable with a microSD card,” explains Spitler. “There was a very small number that actually had a workable handset … well over half had a basic phone and not a smart phone.”

So the school and HID put new smart phones into all their hands. Because participants would keep the handset after the trial, Spitler says, they matched the mobile carrier and handset model to the individual’s current service. In that way, they could transition their new smart phone to their current carrier post pilot.

“We hoped this would help to engage them and show them that their participation and input to the pilot was important to us,” says Spitler.

New door access readers empower the phone

ASU already had HID iCLASS readers across the campus and at key points in Palo Verde Main. But to accept the new NFC keys, readers needed to be upgraded to accept the company’s Secure Identity Object credentials. At six entrances, iCLASS SE readers replaced the existing contactless readers. Four new locations were also enabled with the SE units.
Additionally, four individual rooms within the residence hall were equipped with an offline door lock from ASSA ABLOY’s Sargent line. These locks require the use of a PIN in addition to the credential on the phone.

To gain access, students present keys, cards or phones at as many as four separate points within the residence hall. A main entrance, a courtyard entrance, a wing door and finally a room door each are secured. Most of the students still required the key to gain ultimate entry to their room, but four participants used the phone at all entry points thanks to the Sargent locks.

“When a student approaches a door they click the icon on the smart phone to launch the app and then present it to the door,” explains Ploughe. For the pilot, the countdown was set to 30 seconds before the application closes.

“The sweet spot was different on each phone,” she says, referring to the ideal physical place on the phone to hold next to the reader for optimal use. “We put a Sparky emblem (ASU’s mascot) on back of each phone to make it easy and convenient.”

Surveying the users

At the midpoint of the pilot, an initial survey of participants revealed promising results. Key questions pertained to training and support on devices, functionality of the application and comparison to the card in terms of convenience and speed. Other questions asked for suggestions to improve the current functionality and ideas for additional applications.

At the conclusion of the pilot, a second survey was conducted to address changes in perceptions over time. Have you changed your mind on things? Are you more or less happy with the functionality? Would you like to see the functionality continue to be supported on campus?

Results of these surveys will be released during a panel discussion on Monday, Sept. 19 at the ASIS conference in Orlando. Look for additional details here next week on the survey results.

What was learned?

The pilot concluded on Sept. 6. At press time, ASU was reviewing the survey data to determine next steps.

For Spitler, the pilot was a lesson in reality meeting new technology. “It enabled us to explore how people use mobile credentials and NFC in the real world,” she says.

That is the real value of a pilot. It forces stakeholders to forget their preconceptions of a technology and address how people actually live and work.

As Spitler points out, this is why it was great to have a number of different devices, readers and apps. “It gave us different feelings and that is what a pilot is all about,” she adds.

“It’s my hope that we do a secondary pilot,” says Ploughe. “Ideally I would like the smart phone to be the tool for everything. Lots of people are driving a mobile app to smart phones but there is some risk.”

She hopes that one outcome of these pilots and this user directed research is the establishment of some best practices. “Take care of the risk,” she explains, “and we can open up other applications.”

Ultimately, for ASU it’s all about student success. “The key is engaging them the way they want to be engaged – the same way they do with their friends and with the same tool that connects them socially,” explains Ploughe. “It means that we provide our services to students with devices like this or we have failed in helping them be successful.”

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