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The Journey from Wired to Wireless Access Control

Steve Dunn

In December 2020 BMW announced, in cooperation with Apple, they are the first car maker in the world to offer customers a digital car key on their iPhone. BMW said ‘in the future, you will be able to set up a car key on a compatible iPhone and share it with up to five friends’. 

 

Digital keys are a form of wireless access control, but we’ve been using something similar with cars for the last 40 years. In 1982 Renault first released the key fob. Also, around this time remote controls for opening garage doors became available. Nowadays every car and almost every garage door operates with a wireless access control system. 

 

Although we have been unlocking our car and garage doors wirelessly for the last 40 years they are not ‘fully’ wireless systems. For example, you cannot unlock your car door for select time periods or easily share access unless you are comfortable spending $200-$500 to duplicate your fob. 

 

Access control’s journey from wired to fully wireless systems has been a long, winding and bumpy road. And there is a long way to go yet. A 2018 study by Assa Abloy, the world’s number one lock manufacturer, reported only 6% of access control systems installed in buildings are fully wireless

 

So why is it taking so long for us to adopt fully wireless access control? Wired systems are bulky and require onsite equipment such as; door reader devices; a locking mechanism - commonly an electronic striker plate installed on the door frame; a control panel - usually a large box cabinet around a metre squared to house electronic equipment; onsite PC’s and servers to program the locks; card writer devices; and multiple types of cables and wires. And sometimes you need miles of cables, especially in large buildings, to connect all the locks to each other and the onsite PC’s throughout walls and ceilings for ongoing programming and communications.

 

As you can imagine a fully wired access control system with all this equipment and infrastructure is not cheap either – it can cost between $300-$3000 per door to install - depending on building size and requirements. 

 

Other ‘cons’ of wired systems include; its limited to sites with onsite power; a qualified technician is required for installation; the disruption to the premises during installation can take weeks; and the potential damage to historical buildings restricts its use. Many heritage-listed buildings cannot not have wired access control systems installed.

 

The most beautiful thing about fully wireless access control systems, besides saving money and time on installation and equipment, is that they can connect to the internet. Of course, connecting any device to the internet can bring an array of benefits such as big data analytics, AI, and more efficient management.

 

But despite the long list of pros for fully wireless systems, it’s been mostly two steps forward, one step back. Many wireless systems which rely on network communication protocols, such as Z-Wave, have recently been hacked and removed from the market.  

 

A ‘fully’ wireless access control system does not remove all the onsite equipment either. Network infrastructure is often required for ongoing communications instead of the cables and wires. 

 

Recently, a communication protocol growing in popularity for use in fully wireless access control systems is Wi-Fi. In its primary use in mobile phones, Wi-Fi has become one of the most important human survival needs in today’s developed world. 

 

Some would even call Wi-Fi the sixth segment in Maslow’s pyramid of human needs after self-actualization, family/friends, food, water and shelter. Wi-Fi is so popular that most people would agree that one week without Wi-Fi would leave them grumpier than one week without coffee!

 

Despite Wi-Fi’s enormous popularity, it is not an appropriate technology for use in fully wireless access control systems. Wi-Fi systems require significant onsite network equipment such as modems and onsite power to operate. They also require complicated mesh networks, and even the best systems still have reliability and connection issues, blackspots and signal drops. 

 

Dedicated hackers have discovered many security problems with Wi-Fi systems too. Intruders can listen in to Wi-Fi networks, even without logging in, and capture the Wi-Fi credentials and gain full access to the network and all the locks on site.

 

Whilst many Wi-Fi locks are battery powered, enabling easier installation, their battery life sometimes only last a few months. Connecting multiple locks in various locations and managing them together on the one software account can be problematic too. The locks often configure to the local Wi-Fi network configurations and sharing across multiple sites is restricted for security reasons. 

 

Even Apple and BMW are finding the path to implementing fully wireless systems a bumpy one. In June last year at their WWDC event, they announced their digital key would use Near Field Communication (NFC) Technology. Then only last month they announced that their digital key will soon be using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Ultra Wideband Technology (UWB).  

 

There is light at the end of the tunnel for wireless access control though. Over the last few years, hundreds of telecommunication companies across the globe have been coming together to develop new wireless Internet of Things (IoT) communication technologies on their existing mobile networks. These narrowband and low power technology communication technologies have been specifically designed for smart devices such as smart meters and smart locks to handle small amounts of two-way data transmission in an efficient, secure, and reliable manner. These new communication technologies can also take advantage of multiple layers of mobile network security and encryption features and require no onsite equipment or network infrastructure whatsoever.


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