NFC contactless are the next evolution

“Smartcard to wipe out cash”, a headline which sounds like it may have been used any time in the last few years, is actually taken from the Evening Standard in 1993 just before the launch of Mondex, one of the earliest smart card cashless payment systems.

Launched in Swindon, UK Mondex promised to revolutionise payments using what today is known as a ‘closed loop’ system where money is transferred to a smart card containing a chip and the card is then used to pay for items using a special reader until the virtual cash is used up.

It sounded great and launched to much fanfare but four years later it quietly disappeared never to be heard of again. Its lack of success is generally cited as being down to the hassle of loading the cash, the limited locations at which it could be used and the infrastructure required to support it. Soon after this chip & pin started to emerge offering an ‘open loop’ solution whereby the cash is debited directly from your bank account and within a few years this became the norm.

Skip forward twenty years and it feels like we are seeing history repeat itself.

For the last five years or so the talk of cashless payment at events has fuelled many a debate but the implementation and adoption in the UK at least has been very slow and fraught with issues. The basic idea has been the same as Mondex all those years ago – a closed loop system with the chip (now wirelessly contactable) typically embedded in a wrist band rather than a card.

Many of the same challenges still exist today – the hassle of adding credit to the wristband, the dedicated infrastructure required, limited areas of acceptance and redeeming unused balances. Then there is the user aspect, many of the benefits are for the organiser and promotor rather than the attendee. This is coupled with attendees having concerns about too much information being made available to the event about their purchases and payments.

The aforementioned issues with closed loop systems have allowed the next generation of open loop contactless systems to gain adoption at a much faster rate. Open loop contactless using an existing debit or credit card is a natural progression from chip & pin and removes many of the hurdles seen with closed loop. It is quite telling when one of the world’s largest closed loop systems – Transport for London’s Oyster card – is now moving to an open loop approach.

What is interesting is that in some countries there has been higher adoption of closed loop – the US for example. The US were much faster to the chip & pin party but have been behind the curve on contactless and this may have left a window for closed loop in the short term.

The question is where does this leave events who have several drivers to move to a cashless environment. With the rapid adoption of open loop contactless in day to day life coupled with several disrupters like Apple Pay, Android Pay and PayPal Here, all of which use an open loop approach with NFC (Near Field Communications) embedded in smart devices, the modern generation of event goers will move to the trusted services and closed loop will quietly die away.

What remains is the challenge at events in terms of how to deal with smart reader based payments as the infrastructure cost can be a hurdle to adoption. There are several components to this:

Universal Payment Terminals – The banking world needs to move faster in providing good quality payment terminals that are certified across multiple methods of communication (wired, Wi-Fi & mobile data) and multiple payment methods (chip & pin, contactless & NFC). Today different terminals have to be used depending on the connection method and payment type which means merchants have to hire terminals for use at events because they cannot use their normal terminal. A universal terminal would also make deployment on event sites much easier and cost effective.

Merchant IDs – Many smaller traders at events do not have the magic ‘Merchant ID’ required to set-up card based payment terminals. Merchant IDs are controlled by payment houses and can be costly and complex for very small businesses so a better mechanism is needed to facilitate access to open loop systems for those traders. This sounds like an easy area but it has some complexities due to money laundering issues. Systems such as iZettle help with this but carry (generally) higher fees.

Access to Data – A difference between closed loop and open loop for a promotor or organiser is the ability to easily access usage data. As closed loop is in the control of the organiser they get full visibility (although this can be seen as a negative by attendees). With open loop the data is held by the payment providers so to get a better view across the entire event (involving many merchant IDs) some form of agreed consolidated reporting would remove the concerns organisers have about visibility.

Providing Infrastructure – Open loop systems tend to have a slightly higher requirement when it comes to readers being connected to a network (although many closed loop systems are not as offline as promoted). A modern event has such high requirements in other areas for connectivity that adding in payment systems is not the concern it once was. It is now well accepted that providing access to contactless card based payments drives a higher spend so it should be recognised that an increased spend on infrastructure will reap returns overall.

In the last few years we have seen a rapid swing to providing a resilient payment environment across events and the feedback is very positive – fast and easy transactions, and an increased spend by attendees. It just needs more support from the banking world to resolve the last few issues and make the cashless (or near cashless) event a reality.

Notes:

Swindon Advertiser – How Smart was that?

We were truly flattered to receive the Communications Company of the Year 2012 award at last Wednesdays (1st Feb) Event Production Awards at the Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, London.

Any recognition of our company is fantastic but to be judged by a group of peers is an excellent testament for the team at Etherlive who consistently go above ad beyond to keep our customers working through day and night.

The thanks would not be complete without mentioning our customers who choose to use Etherlive at their events. We understand the amount of trust which customers place in us to deliver their critical communications at their events so we back up our delivery with a continuous focus on improving existing services and bringing new services to the market through innovation.

Here’s to a successful and busy 2012 event season for organisers, production teams and suppliers alike. Article from Event Industry News here

Etherlive pickup Best Communications Company award (photo from eventindustrynews.co.uk

If you are attending the Event Production Show on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd of February at Olympia you may be surprised to find Etherlive do not have a stand as in previous years. This year our approach to trade shows is different, evolving from feedback and activity undertaken during the last year.

In broad terms we are moving away from a traditional trade show approach (we will still be attending the Showman’s Show) to focus our efforts on more direct interaction with customers and potential customers – taking the form of involvement with forums and working groups such as the ESSA Wi-Fi Working Group, the HBAA Forum and the AIF. Alongside this we will continue to expand our own technology forum – The Gathering – to work with customers, suppliers and technology partners to understand, discuss and resolve the technology challenges important to event organisers, production managers and venues.

The reasoning behind this is simple, we strongly believe in partnering with customers and suppliers to deliver the best solutions for the industry and our investment in working directly and interactively with the industry delivers much more value to everyone involved rather than a simple ‘shop front’ approach at trade shows.

We will still be at the Event Production Show – we are chairing the Access Session ‘Plastic Passion’ around RFID/cashless payment technology and will be involved with the ESSA Wi-Fi forum. Etherlive people (Tom, Mike, Steve, Chris) will also be having a number of customer meetings at the show and if you would like to arrange an informal chat over coffee please do drop us an email at eps@www.etherlive.co.uk or send a tweet to @etherlive and we will arrange a time to meet up.

This week sees our 4th consecutive year exhibiting at the Showman’s Show. The show, at Newbury Showground on Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th October, in a way marks a transition from the 2011 outdoor event season to the start of the 2012 season, although these days we see a variety of outdoor events year-round.

Etherlive ready for it's 4th Showmans Show

Etherlive prepares for its 4th Showmans Show

2012 in the UK is of course a bit of a one off with the Olympics and Paralympics occurring right at the peak of the outdoor event season. We are providing a number of services for Olympic related activity, such as all the IT, communications and broadcast provision for the London Media Centre, but we have been very careful to ensure this has no impact on our existing customers and their events.

What is important though is booking and planning for 2012, especially in London and other locations that will see Olympic activity. Provision of connectivity such as fibre and broadband services will see longer lead times due to sheer demand (we are ordering many services already so that they are provisioned very early next year). Transportation is another area which is impacted with requirements on suppliers to submit transport plans for London well in advance of events if they occur during the broad Olympic period. These aspects and others are all good topics for discussion at Showman’s if you are planning an event in 2012.

This year we are on Stand 71 of the indoor hall where we will be demonstrating a new generation of mobile VoIP handsets – allowing the freedom of a mobile phone with the cost advantages of VoIP. These units also couple up with an alarm and monitoring system providing a new level of integrated service for event organisers.

We will also be launching our latest innovation; Event Band, a suite of tools using RFID technology facilitating payment systems, loyalty services, accreditation and crew management. This technology will sit alongside the latest generation wireless chip & pin PDQs providing reliable payment methods for bars, merchants, exhibitors and ticketing.

The latest networked noise monitoring support offered by Etherlive will be on display, along with a demonstration of next generation satellite broadband, offering internet anywhere from the new KA band with higher internet speeds.

Alongside all the new products we will also have our core network, communications and CCTV technologies on display, solutions that have been used time and time again across a wide range of events connecting thousands of users. Outside we will also have one of our communications tower lights offering CCTV, Wi-Fi and public address as well as an economical lighting system. This can be found on the Aceplant stand (169) at the end of Avenue G.

Recently we announced that Etherlive has joined ESSA (Event Supplier and Services Association), alongside ongoing membership of the AIF (Association of Independent Festivals) and the ASAO (Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations). As well as actively participating in these organisations we also offer special services to fellow members.

We will have plenty of staff on hand to discuss event requirements and provide cost effective solutions to a broad range of connectivity, communications and other event IT needs.

 

For some time we have been really keen to get together a group of thought leaders from the events industry to discuss a range of technology related topics. With a fantastic team effort this event, which we called ‘The Gathering’, was held on the 30th of March at Lords futuristic media centre. Each of the four panels was focused on a specific area of technology with industry experts giving practical guidance, their opinion and answering questions from the audience. The notes below highlight some of the points raised but a lot was covered in the five hours so they are just a very small window on the discussions . To keep the discussion about technology in events going we aim to keep the twitter hashtag #eventtech for questions and comments.

Ticketing and Cashless Payments – Tom McInerney facilitated a panel involving Paul Pike from Intelligent Venue Solutions and Darren Jackson from Ticketscript discussing the latest innovations.

  • Many events are now becoming aware of the customer data associated with tickets. The opinion of the panel was in many cases this is worth more than the face value of the ticket as events should be starting to build profiles from their customers which can then be the cornerstone of many other activities (such as loyalty schemes).
  • Loyalty systems may take the form of branded cards or RFID wristbands but the important element to consider is using these in more than just a ‘closed loop’ way, perhaps opening them up for eating out in the local area or purchasing merchandise providing another revenue stream for the event.
  • Paul Pike discussed trials which are under exploration for this year which would see significant steps in making cashless events a reality.

Social Media – Chaired by Ian Irving the panel included Andrew Cock-Starkey from Lords and Jonathan Emmins from Amplify discussing how events can use social media before, during and after an event.

  • Ian discussed how events should continue to focus on using social media as a core element, enlarging the community past just those that attended.
  • Lords Andrew Cock-Starkey talked about how they have developed a large following for their Twitter feed, using it for continuous commentary on matches and a channel for last minute tickets (which can then be tracked back using offer codes to get quantifiable value).
  • There was lively discussion on managing the ‘negative’ aspects of social media too, engaging with, rather than ignoring those who are complaining.
  • Many of the panel thought the key technologies of the future would be live streaming content to those not at the event and ensuring that those attending can access online resources.
The Gathering taking place at Lords Media Centre

The Gathering taking place at Lords Media Centre

Event Vision – Tom McInerney chaired a discussion between Dan Craig, Loudsounds and Dale Barnes from Virgin Media focused on the key technology elements events will be focused on in the future.

  • Dale talked about how as a major brand when he is asked to deliver services in temporary events locations it really helps to have a technology person to engage with and discuss practicalities. The requirements from sponsors will only become greater as events continue to look for ‘partners’ who can contribute to the event not just push product X.
  • The panel discussed how events which take place at the same locations year after year will become more focused on what investments can be made. Not just in terms of water and power but also internet presentation. In many cases arranging service over multiple years can generate significant savings.
  • Dan discussed how events are continuing to invest in backend systems to simplify event management but also share data quickly with suppliers so everyone has up to date information. Tools like Dropbox and Google documents were sighted as invaluable but increase the pressure on IT systems at events.

Applications – Joanna Wales from Ascot Racecourse, Adrian Strahan and Chris Green discussed the key elements to a successful application and the challenges which still surround creating an app which gains traction within what is becoming an increasingly crowded market.

  • The panel shared their experience of working applications released by several large customers, and that by working within the businesses to find the different things the application could deliver was critical to its success.
  • Chris discussed the issues of delivering a ‘cross platform’ application (i.e. one which works across Android, Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry) this continues to be a challenge however planning for a multiple release during the design and creation process can avoid painful re-working later on.
  • The panel discussed the Edinburgh Fringe application as a great example of an application that was really useful and improves the event experience.
  • Many of the audience thought that applications should be free for events, since trying to charge generally puts off those that might find it valuable. Some discussions identified that a good app will encourage more people to attend and get more out of the event.

Real World Experience – Chris Green, Mike Lang and Tom McInerney fielded questions from the audience and discussed how some of the customers they partner with had developed an on-going technology strategy encompassing many of the topics that had come up during the day.

  • Several questions from the audience focused on how smaller events can take advantage of technology without huge investments. Chris discussed how many technology services can be delivered for growing events – the key is to ensure enough lead time as solutions which have to be delivered in a rush tend to more expensive. There is also opportunity to share some of the costs of connectivity between events that use the same locations.

In summary a fantastic day to network, meet new contacts and learn. We hope to run The Gathering again and are really excited about developing the forum and taking on the feedback from the attendees.

The Etherlive team are now in the last stages of planning in preparation for the Event Production Show at Olympia on 2 – 3 February. We are on stand 620, on the right hand side of the main isle not far from the entrance. As usual the team will be ready to answer questions, discuss services and demonstrate equipment. With a Royal Wedding this year and the Olympics next year it is important to get services booked early – we are already seeing a knock on impact from these events, for example lead times are increasing for telecommunication services and this will get worse during the year.

Alongside our normal array of solutions for connectivity, communications, monitoring and interactive technology we will also be demonstrating three new services:

Crew Accreditation System – A contact-less RFID card (or wristband) system which makes managing crews simpler. The system uses a PC or touchscreen terminal to manage crew as they book out keys, radios, plant equipment and doubles as a crew catering system replacing those pesky paper vouchers. Multiple terminals can be used over the site such as in the catering tent and production offices. All the data is easy to manage allowing production to forecast catering requirements and track items quickly.

Event Production Show 2011

Dynamic Secure Wi-Fi – There has been a lot of press recently about the security of wireless networks and even though we already have a very secure system we will launching an even better solution. What’s great about it is that it’s easier for the user but more secure as every user has their own unique encryption key. Aimed at events when privacy is critical it will reside alongside our existing range of wireless services so that you can decide what level is appropriate for your event.

Communications Tower Light – Not completely new as it is in its second year of use by Etherlive but this palletised, environmentally tower light was a great success during the 2010 season so we have been improving it further. Supporting Wi-Fi and cabled networking, public address and CCTV from one unit, it is perfect for quickly deploying technology services in areas with no power. The 2011 unit now has multiple camera options with a new higher zoom and motion tracking enabled camera added to the range; and if you need high density outdoor wireless there are options for up to 750 simultaneous Wi-Fi connections off of one unit.

Take a moment to register here if you plan to come along to the show to speed up getting in and of course if you want to set-up a specific time to meet you can get in contact beforehand.

We hope to see you at the show!

A number of the Etherlive team enjoyed another great year exhibiting at the Showman’s Show. The weather was bright and sunny but cold, no pouring rain at the end like last year! The Show was relatively busy throughout but did die off very quickly on Thursday afternoon. We demonstrated some of the new innovations we will be bringing to the market including a crew accreditation system, to which customer response has been fantastic. A number of further enhancements are in the pipeline based on feedback from this year’s pilots.

Also on display at the indoor stand were our flight case communication systems, designed to deploy a network quickly connecting to whatever Internet connectivity is needed (satellite, leased lines, ADSL. 3G). We also demonstrated our VoIP handsets and Wi-Fi PDQ machines which can be configured for any merchant. Outside at the chilly (but dry and sunny) end of Avenue G our Mobile Command Centre (MCC) acted as the centre for the outdoor stand, complete with 17m pneumatic mast and flag. The MCC is used for large events, providing connectivity, hosting, network management and a support base for several engineers. The MCC is often coupled with our communications tower light which is specially designed to support Wi-Fi, wired network access, CCTV and public address along with being a much more environmentally friendly tower light. The outdoor stand was shared with one of partners, Aceplant, who were demonstrating their range of plant equipment for use at events.

Our ‘Venue IT powered by Etherlive’ brand was also on display at the show. The Venue IT brand will be increasingly used for permanent installation such as Showgrounds and for customers looking for a partner with which to discuss straightforward event communications.

If you didn’t get a chance to see us at Showman’s then we will be at the Event Production Show on 2nd and 3rd February 2011 at Olympia, London or you can get in contact to setup a visit any time.

Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID as it is more commonly known, is not particularly new, having been around in various forms for a number of years. It suffered in the early days being seen as a technology looking for a problem to solve which, coupled with the high cost of deployment and issues around reliability, has seen it struggle to make an impact in the events industry.

Technology always takes a while to mature (I owned my first handheld smart device in about 1999 and it was hopeless by today’s standards!) As it matures the price comes down, the reliability and features improve and, most importantly, people have a chance to understand where it can used effectively.

RFID is in that position now. You do not think twice about using an Oyster card which is a great example of effective RFID use.  The  cost of RFID cards, stickers, wristbands etc has been falling fast and the reader technology is now widely available, positioning RFID nicely for an explosion in use.

Back to basics first though, what exactly is RFID? In simple terms it is a small ‘chip’ embedded into a card, sticker, wristband or other object which can transmit, receive and store small amounts of information when placed close to a special reader. It is this ability to store information on the chip which differentiates modern RFID with older systems such as those used in retail stores on high value items, and from where the term ‘smartcard’ comes. The second key feature of RFID is that the card or tag does not need to be inserted into a reader it can just be held close to a reader, making it ideal for rapid transactions.

Recently there have been a few announcements of exhibition venues, seen as a significant potential market for RFID,  moving towards an RFID based solution for tracking visitors and over time I think this will increase but it probably will not be a rapid transition as there are already fairly good systems in place using bar codes and scanners. The real opportunity lies in other areas such as festivals and big shows where RFID offers real promise of solving a number of challenges.

Take music festivals for example, the holy grail maybe for every attendee to have an RFID enabled wristband that is used for access to the event and as a means of cashless payment but that will take a few years yet to become mainstream. More immediately RFID can be used to assist in the management of crew and equipment. Crew catering is a pain for many organisers, a hassle to manage and often a black hole of cost. Using an RFID ‘smart card’ for each crew member pre-programmed with their meal allocations, coupled with an RFID reader at the catering location and now meals are processed quickly and efficiently. That’s only part of it though as now the organiser has real-time information as to how many meals are being consumed, what the forecast is for tomorrow, even what the peak times are. These data points seem trivial but actually provide cost saving information when you discover for example that on average the crew are only consuming 70% of the meals allocated (and paid for).

Expand the ‘catering card’ to be the ID card (as it already has information such as name and contractor company programmed onto it) and it could be used for checking in and out equipment such as radios, plant and cabin keys. Away go endless pieces of paper replaced by a real-time screen showing who has what. Go one step further and program qualifications into the system and then the cherry picker or manitou can only be checked out by a crew card which has the correct accreditation. The same system then extends to authorisation for restricted areas, providing the ability to ‘cancel’ a card centrally if it is lost.

So what’s holding back wide-scale use of RFID? Cost was a problem but now the price point is much more attractive. Reliable networks at events is often cited but these days the networks at events are expected to be like an office network and a correctly designed RFID system has built in tolerance (for example Oyster readers process most information locally and then send updates to the central system later). The biggest barrier is probably the concern over the change to processes that are required when any new system is implemented. The solution to this is not to use a ‘big bang’ approach but a 2-3 year strategy that will reap long term rewards. The lessons learnt along the way will ensure the holy grail of full attendee RFID is a much smoother affair.