Internaut: Radio tags are cheap enough to replace bar codes

Shawn P. McCarthy

Anyone involved in government IT asset management knows what a headache it can be to keep track of hundreds or thousands of pieces of computer equipment.

Things get shoved into corners or broken and thrown out. Coworkers trade monitors and keyboards. People reassigned to other offices carry their notebook PCs with them. It can take weeks to notice equipment is missing. In some cases, it's never even reported.

Equipment sellers increasingly rely on radio-frequency identification tags to track products. The lessons they've learned also apply to asset tracking in government IT departments.

For years the military and other logistics operations have placed RFIDs on, for example, trucks, tanks and shipping containers. The tags send out a signal with a unique identifier that can be monitored and tracked.

But RF tags were bulky and expensive, and the tracking systems were complicated to implement. Three things are now pushing RFID into mainstream asset tracking:
  • Tags have become amazingly small and cheap. Think of a nickel'that's the size and very nearly the price of a low-end tag purchased in big lots.

  • Although tags can't be read from miles away, their signals are strong enough to pick up within a building, and sensors can transfer the data elsewhere via a wireless network.

  • The RFID data can be read on Web interfaces or via a handheld computer on the same wireless network.

Developers of RFID systems are enthusiastic about an 'Internet of things' on which any object, from computers to clothing to people, could be tagged and tracked as a discrete item.

Libraries are testing RFID tags for irreplaceable books, and large computer sellers, such as the GTSI Integration and Distribution Center of Chantilly, Va., are keeping inventory with RFID tags.

Some tags have user-programmable 64-bit codes, which store more information than standard bar codes. They can, for example, tell where an item was manufactured, when it was purchased and who currently has it. Many such setups are still roll-your-own, but turnkey systems are coming.

Texas Instruments RFid Systems of Dallas has developed a secure technology platform for contactless payment transactions, such as on public transit. Visit for more information.

A great beginner's resource on construction of RFID systems is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-sponsored Auto ID Center, at

Shawn P. McCarthy has designed products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.


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