Virtual Credentialing Is Now a Reality

Spring 2018 Issue
By: Curtis Dennis, Nedap Identification Systems

Also known as mobile access, this technology allows people to access buildings via their smartphones, eliminating the need for keys or other physical credentials.

A PROMISING INNOVATION in the use of smartphones is making life easier for developers, building owners, property managers and occupants alike. Virtual credentialing, also known as mobile access, allows developers and property managers to provide a safer and more convenient environment for their tenants while significantly cutting development and management costs. Its platforms allow people to access buildings and areas within them using their personal smartphones, rather than keys or other physical credentials such as keycards. The technology can be used by both building staff and tenants, and it doesn’t require any special capital investments for keys or ID badges. Just hold up your phone near a reader and you are in.

Why is virtual credentialing a big deal? The benefits to tenants are obvious: smart phones are ubiquitous, and most people keep their phones with them at all times. People are much less likely to lose their phones than their keys, and when they are lost, “find my phone” services can generally help people get their devices back.

The technology also offers important advantages for developers and facility managers, particularly those with large properties. The cost, in both time and money, of setting up tens of thousands of keys for business tenants can be daunting. And when one tenant moves out and another moves in, the process repeats itself. With virtual credentialing, access can be arranged with a few keystrokes. Lost keys and the expense of replacing keys or other credentials are no longer an issue because, with virtual credentialing, there’s no physical item to lose. Virtual credentialing can also save developers and property managers tens of thousands of dollars a year by eliminating the need to have new keys made when tenants lose theirs or when new tenants move into a building or complex. The cost of replacing an individual key can range from a few dollars to as much as $20; key cards and fobs average $15 to $50 each. The larger the building or complex, the higher the potential replacement costs.

How It Works

Most virtual credentialing platforms rely on Bluetooth to enable a phone to communicate with a reader that’s located next to a door, or perhaps built into the door lock. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a wireless two-way radio communication network, enables devices to communicate automatically, without requiring manual pairing. Because Bluetooth can generally communicate from several feet away, the technology offers sufficient bidirectional bandwidth to set up a secure connection.

While other technologies such as near-field communication (NFC) can also manage mobile access, BLE is the technology of choice because it has a much longer range. Plus, most users are already familiar with Bluetooth, so it’s easy to use and there’s a minimal learning curve. Finally, BLE is supported on most Android handsets and iPhones.

Virtual credentialing platforms utilize a cloud-based service to forward a unique number, the identifier, to the platform apps. This number is then sent to one or more readers or locks. Remember the old days when you needed to call a locksmith to change the locks if a tenant lost a key? Now you can wirelessly send a new number to change the access data for whichever locks are impacted.

Mobile access control platforms also promote security through the use of encryption to secure the communication between the cloud-based server and the smartphone, as well as between the smartphone and the mobile access control reader associated with a particular lock. Encryption keys are used to authenticate the identity of the smartphone and its user, and virtual credentialing is just as secure as the radio-frequency identification (RFID) cards that are commonly used to manage entry into high control areas in public safety facilities, schools, laboratories and other buildings where security is vital.

A virtual networking system is also simple to install. While there’s an initial, one-time cost of $350 per door, to mount specialized readers and access the necessary software, the technology should rapidly pay for itself by eliminating the need for keys. (Most plans also involve a nominal annual fee of about $1 per credential.)

Who Is Using It?

Virtual credentialing can benefit any type of business that provides keys to employees or customers. Although the technology is still relatively new, a wide variety of building types are already utilizing it, including office complexes, hotels, retail centers and residential developments.

Hotels are the most obvious market for virtual credentialing, because they are constantly creating new keys for guests. Hotels benefit from the technology by having to purchase fewer key cards. The technology is also an attractive customer service amenity; guests don’t need to keep track of a key card or be careful about where in their wallets and purses they keep them.

Office and retail complexes have also begun to use virtual credentialing. Building owners can reduce their costs significantly by avoiding the need to purchase keys for tenants and each of their employees. And their tenants don’t have to worry about changing locks when employees lose their keys, are fired or resign. Lock codes can be changed with a few keystrokes, and staff can instantly be supplied with the new codes. The software can even be used to provide additional security by recording data about who is coming and going in and out of a business, or even a specific area or door, at any given time.

Finally, virtual credentialing is becoming more popular at apartment and condominium complexes for many of the same reasons. The technology provides another unique benefit to residential tenants, because it’s possible to create temporary codes for visitors, such as house sitters and guests. This is much more convenient than requiring tenants to have additional keys made and then having to keep track of those keys.

Stepping Into the Future, Today

It’s expected that by the end of 2018 there will be 237.6 million smartphone users in the U.S., among a total population of about 327 million. It’s easy to see the extraordinary promise of smartphone technologies like virtual credentialing. Developers and property managers are already reaping the benefits of this technology, which provides a secure and cost-effective way to manage how staff and tenants access their buildings.

Providing users with a virtual credential also provides administrators with direct access to users via their smartphones. This access could be used to communicate many different types of information, from marketing to emergency notices, depending on the application scenario. So while the immediate benefits are good, the potential long-term benefits are exceptional.

By Curtis Dennis, technical lead, Nedap Identification Systems in the Americas,