The Mobile PASMO Front Line

Junya Suzuki digs into the technical and financial challenges facing PASMO bringing Mobile PASMO to market. He was kind and tweeted me right after meeting with PASMO-Seibu Railway officials that the trademark registration was just that. I suspect plans are farther along than a trademark application but for now, let’s take PASMO’s word.

The most fascinating thing to me is the numbers. As of March 2017 (6 months after the Apple Pay Suica launch) the breakdown for Suica cards is:

  • 64 million total Suica (plastic and mobile)
  • 4.4 million Mobile Suica, about 7%

Even though the Japanese market is just reaching the 1 year mark of Apple Pay Suica, and 11 years of Mobile Suica service on other mobile phone, there is a long way to go.

PASMO is far smaller, the last reported figure from 2014 was about 20 million. Current estimates are 25 million. At the Mobile Suica rate that translates to a little over 1 million potential Mobile PASMO users.

The financial challenges of building a viable mobile service infrastructure from a far smaller user base are clear. The obvious solution, and likely outcome is a service deal with Mobile Suica. But this has technical challenges as well.

Suzuki san lays out all the FeliCa details that I will only outline. All the major IC Transit cards are compatible with each other through the Congress of Japan Railway Cybernetics (fancy name for a committee of the Japan Railway Engineers’ Association). However there are differences in the way each transit card uses the Secure Element and Application layer of the IC card FeliCa chip. These are basically the extra services offered by different transit cards. PiTaPa for example offers both pre-paid and post-pay fare transaction services the other transit cards do not.

In short PASMO would have to lose the service extras they offer customers to work on Apple Pay via JR East’s Mobile Suica backend. Any service start window depends on how much PASMO is willing to give up to get on Apple Pay. The one feature that customers really want for Mobile PASMO is commuter passes. Fortunately this appears to be the easiest feature to port.

My vote is going the SmartEX way of starting as quickly as possible with a barebones service then build up from there. Suzuki san thinks Mobile PASMO is cannot start in 2017 and 2018 is highly unlikely. I am a little more optimistic and think we could see Mobile PASMO in 2018.

Let’s face it, 2019 is cutting it awfully close if PASMO wants mobile service in place for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.