Smart cards, with their computer chip-enabled functionality, have been slow to catch on in the U.S., but that is beginning to change very quickly. They are familiar feeling, and in this computerized age, the idea of a chip on a card is hardly far-fetched.

Smart cards face a greater challenge, however, in that the card-centric infrastructure - everything from bank ATMs and credit card readers to corporate access control systems - was not set up to read them. But the U.S. government and the banking industry both are taking steps to remedy that.

According to the Smart Card Industry Association (SCIA), a smart card is "a credit-card sized plastic card with an embedded computer chip. The chip can be either a microprocessor with internal memory or a memory chip with non-programmable logic. The chip connection is either via direct physical contact (contact technology) or remotely via contactless electromagnetic interface (contactless technology)."

Get Ready, Get Smart

Smart cards have been gearing up for a widespread deployment in the U.S. for several years now. While the majority of smart card applications may still be on the high end, they are coming down to an average user-level, and fast.

"Today, prices are falling everywhere," says Drew Chernoy, vice president, marketing/operations, Blick USA Inc., Monterey, Calif. Blick recently entered the smart card market with a MIFARE compatible contactless smart card reader that is priced competitively with proximity. "The price of 125 kHz proximity has fallen, too. A few vendors are selling it at its lowest price, and it is still less expensive than smart cards at that level. But the fact is that the price point of smart cards is now in the area that 125 kHz recently was, and in fact still is for a lot of distributors. And the price of smart cards is dropping faster than the price of 125 kHz


Still, many dealers have been reluctant to delve into smart cards. "We haven't explored smart cards yet," says Henry Olivares, president of A-Professional Locks, Inc., Access Control Division, Gilbert, Ariz. "We do advertise in the Yellow Pages that we could do smart cards, though." Ener-Tel, San Angelo, Texas, has looked into smart cards. "It's still a little bit Buck Rogers," says Mike Dismore, sales manager. "It's not quite ready for prime time at this point. But when the time comes and there is support for it, absolutely."

According to some, that time is now. "There are dealers out there who are successful with it," Chernoy says. "They tend to be more systems integrators. It's not something you buy off the shelf right now. But competitive pressures are driving the prices down."

The fact that it's not so accessible can be an advantage.

"If I sold an off-the-shelf system today, my connection to that customer is much more likely to be taken over by someone else in the future than if I am one of only a select few that can support the system," Chernoy says. "Smart cards provide an opportunity for a localized dealer to carve out a niche for themselves."

According to Stephen Kleiman, vice president of sales, ALCO Advanced Technologies, Weston, Fla., dealers who have not considered smart cards in the past are starting to evolve into it. "Dealers are reading and hearing a lot about it, and are becoming aware of it. We have several dealers who are now promoting smart card technology.

"The main advantage to you, the dealer, is that you're selling today's and tomorrow's products, not yesterday's. Let's assume smart cards are a train. The train is moving. Do you want to be in the front of the train or on the last car?"

ALCO's Intelli-M is a smart card-based system with an easy-to-install controller and network architecture.

"It's an educational process for all, both for the dealer and the end user," Kleiman says. "For several years now we all have been hearing about smart cards and that technology. The future is now here. The smart card is here. The federal government is insisting on its employees using smart cards as the ID card, and as the government goes, so do the commercial markets, eventually."

Robert Sawyer, president and CEO of manufacturer Group 4 Securitas Technology Group, Torrance, Calif., adds that when that happens, you will start to see smart cards down at the smaller installation level.

Chernoy cautions, however, that it is a mistake to think smart cards are only in certain sectors right now. "People who think smart cards are only for banking and government right now are myopic. Back in the old days when magnetic stripe was king, people thought, 'Why would anyone want proximity?' But when the proximity price came down, the convenience factor made it popular."

Smart Selling

Smart card technology is available, and in many cases priced right. Are people buying it?

"If we talk about demand, smart cards have a greater interest to people concerned about security in terms of encryption and authentication," Chernoy says. "They are quicker to select a smart card than others. But the fact is, much like air bags and anti-lock brakes are now on almost every car, what used to be a high-end feature is now a standard feature. I think that smart cards are at or just past that turning point."

Kleiman adds that installations don't need to be large to justify a smart card. The multi-functionality inherent in the smart card can make it a good fit for small communities, housing developments, condominiums, or even schools (see related story, "School District Installs Smart Card System," below).

"The smart card is just a purse with 16 pockets, each with a lock on it," Chernoy says. "It's not the card technology itself, it's what people do with it that matters. Government is the easiest to sell to," he acknowledges. "But the dealer can identify applications that appeal to the common person. Even in a single building, the smart card can be used to carry data from reader to reader. In 125 kHz, all the readers connect to the host. The smart card can be used to reduce total installation costs in a standard application because the reader doesn't have to connect to the host, reducing total system installation costs."

In the case of the smart card, educating the customer may mean overcoming perceptions that it is only for large banking applications, or even that it is just like the smart credit card the customer received from American Express. In fact, there are two types of smart cards. Contact smart cards, with the chip exposed, need to be inserted into a reader, and are not always the best choice for access control. The contactless smart card, of which MIFARE is one standard protocol, is read much like a proximity card, but it also can allow for read/write functions and several different applications, such as cashless vending, logical access, and employee record storage.

"The average dealer's customer is being educated about smart cards by the banking industry," Chernoy says. "That's both a positive and a negative. What people are seeing advertised are contact smart cards, not contactless. On the other hand, there is all kinds of press about smart cards. Dealers can take advantage of that."

Another misconception customers may have is that the smart card is "overkill" for simple access control. Chernoy disagrees. "If the customer truly needs an access control system and it's down to two options, proximity and contactless smart card, both at the same price point, is the smart card overkill? What a wonderful situation to be in, to have your system do something the other one doesn't and win the sale."

Kleiman suggests selling on both current and future needs. "If you want something to allow you to open or not open a door, then I have the perfect system for you. This will do just that. The dealer doesn't have to promote the other features and benefits if the customer doesn't need them. They are not paying for something they're not using. But when I talk to the end user, I say my access control system is just as good, if not better than the next. But, mine will allow you to do so much more if and when that time comes."

Installation Specifics

"Smart cards are electrically identical to install," Chernoy says. "Cards are cards. The rest is software. It depends on how good the manufacturer's software is."

Blick's technology uses various Wiegand, ABA Clock and Data outputs, or RS232, RS422 or RS485 interfaces, depending on the version. The one-piece, completely encased readers accept a power supply of 5-12 VDC, and are equipped with buzzer and LED control.

With a controller smaller than the size of a business card, ALCO designed its system to be easy to install, Kleiman says. "We use a single twisted-pair cable, which is easier to install and maintain because our controller is located near the door. There is much less cabling and material costs involved, as well as labor time. The dealer can pass those savings onto the end user."

SIDEBAR: School District Installs Smart Card System

With all the problems schools face today, The Runnemede School District of Runnemede, N.J., needed an access system that would best protect the occupants of the school. The district recently installed a smart card access system in all three of its elementary schools.

"Our biggest concern was safety and security for the students, teachers, and other district employees," says Ken Hill, school administrator.

"We wanted a security system that would help us avoid unauthorized access in our schools during the school day, while at the same time allow easy access to our staff and students, plus have a system that is simple to use and offers excellent reporting and monitoring capabilities."

To meet these requirements, the school district brought in Radar Security Systems of Mantua, N.J. Radar chose the Intelli-M smart card access control system from ALCO Advanced Technologies to best fit Runnemede's security and access control needs.

According to Lafayette Moore, president of Radar Security, the Intelli-M's features and benefits provided the school district with exactly what they wanted. State-of-the-art smart card technology allows the school district great latitude for future changes and expansion. Additionally, Intelli-M's small door controller with single twisted pair wiring carrying both power and data made installation easy.

Hill was also impressed with Intelli-M's ability to interface with his CCTV system and add other vital services, such as a biometrics interface, logical access for computer security, and other interoperable applications as the school district's needs evolve, Moore says.

Since the Intelli-M software is based on a Microsoft NT platform and has built-in photo ID badging, elevator control, guard tour, CCTV, alarm monitoring and time and attendance modules, Hill says, Runnemede can manage all of its needs from just one application.

"We can mix and match applications as well as access levels quickly and efficiently at a reasonable cost. For example, you can disable a card, change access levels, make a photo ID badge, manage computer security, generate reports, and much more from any authorized workstation on the network."