The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: why Oyster is missing from mobile

Open Loop EMV
It is very strange that the TfL Oyster card, which completely transformed London area transit still isn’t hosted natively on Apple Pay or Google Pay. Other MIFARE based cards are hosted on both digital wallet platforms and TfL has an Oyster app for account management and online recharge (top-ups). From a technical standpoint there doesn’t seem to be any particular problem preventing them. Perhaps it is a political thing.

TfL decided in 2011 to put their resources into the emerging EMV contactless standard. The reason was simple:

The current Oyster system, though very popular, is expensive and complex to administer. Contactless bank cards use existing technology, responsibility for issuing cards would lie with the banks rather than TfL, and the operating costs should be lower.

That is politician think, not business think: everything is a budget problem, not a business opportunity that needs investment, reduce costs by letting someone else pick up the tab but let them take their cut first. I wonder if TfL publishes how much they pay out in transaction processing fees to banks and Cubic? Perhaps not. Meanwhile budget pressures are not letting up as Londonist notes:

In 2017 there was a push to nudge people away from their Oyster cards and towards contactless. One announcement rang out all over London’s tube stations: Why not use your contactless bank card today? Never top up again, and it’s the same fare as Oyster.

The die was cast in 2014 and probably won’t change. Instead of putting resources into hosting Oyster on Apple Pay or Google Pay, TfL and Cubic already have a mobile solution which is ‘open loop’ ticketing with EMV contactless bank cards. Open loop does not address the finer issues of different fare schedules (children, seniors, etc.), commuter passes, season tickets, nationwide transit interoperability, regional promotion, nor does it offer the business advantages of a transit payment platform, Express Cards with power reserve or any kind of future vision. That’s the end of the open loop story because EMV contactless is a very dumb smart card.

It’s a shame really because TfL loves to say they generate the most transactions in all of Europe. To me that’s a gold mine to build an empire, budget problems solved. Unfortunately TfL gives that gold mine away to banks and Cubic.

You can see the same thinking with Oyster’s Australian cousin, the Opal card system, built and managed by Cubic, just like Oyster. Opal is also going the ‘open loop’ route instead of transit cards on mobile.

Open Loop QR

Hong Kong’s Octopus (FeliCa) and Singapore’s EZ-Link (Ex-FeliCa now CEPAS) are going open loop but in different ways. EZ-Link has been testing EMV contactless for over 2 years now, users report a less than smooth experience. Kaohsiung Rapid Transit in Taiwan which uses MIFARE based iPASS and EasyCard is also considering EMV contactless open loop while the recently opened Taoyuan Airport MRT offers QR Codes and a cute YouTube video.

Hong Kong going the QR Code route shows how badly AliPay wants in on Hong Kong transit, and MTR Corporation in on China transit, bad enough that Hong Kong will sacrifice a great transit payment platform for AliPay, another gold mine giveaway. Judging by the AliPay branding and retrofitted QR Code readers on Hangzhou Metro gates in the pictures above, what AliPay wants, AliPay gets, but the fast FeliCa based Octopus smart card stands in the way. Instead of improving Octopus or extending mobile Smart Octopus, it looks like Hong Kong will invest in very slow and very dumb QR. The Hong Kong Economic Journal had this to say about the development:

MTR has set its sights on a major revamp of its fare collection system, accepting new electronic payments methods rather than just single journey tickets and Octopus Cards. From the passengers’ perspective, it means there will be no need to have an Octopus card on hand for a journey on local trains, if MTR’s new fare collection system supports all the mainstream contactless payment methods such as Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass, or mobile payment means like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay.

Japan in the middle
TfL/Oyster and Transport for NSW/Opal, Octopus, EZ-Link are government held transit authorities, not private independent companies. Publicly run transit authorities are subject to politics and special interests like any government agency, this sometimes leads to poor decisions and short-term thinking.

Japan was fortunate that major transit players like JR East, are private companies with strong technology partners, like Sony and NTT Docomo. Out of this fortunate set of circumstances Suica was created and finally reached  the market in 2001 (a fascinating engineering story). Suica became the Japan IC Transit card template which evolved into the ubiquitous Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project for transit and e-money use. Mobile Suica was introduced in 2006 by NTT Docomo and now resides on the Apple Pay and Google Pay platforms.

The ubiquity and scale of interoperable transit IC cards sets Japan apart from all other countries. China copied the Japanese model for China T-Union but the cards cannot be used as e-money and have been upstaged by AliPay and WeChat Pay which, surprise, can be used for e-money and transit.

Japan occupies a very unusual middle ground between EMV contactless from the West and QR Codes from China, neither of which play well together. The scale of Suica provides the breathing space for Japan to pick and chose what works best for, and enhances their transit payment platform. The result is an incredibly rich and varied contactless payments market anchored around Suica and similar FeliCa prepaid cards.

Future trends
For every marketing report that predicts QR Code payments growing into a 70 billion USD sized market by 2023, someone else calls it nonsense because Suica is becoming the card for everything. In many ways Suica already is. MITI said it is investigating using QR Codes for small rural transit systems that cannot afford IC card systems. This loops back to TfL complaint that IC cards are expensive to issue and manage.

Low-cost QR Codes certainly make sense for lightly used rural transit operations but they have a fatal weakness: they don’t have plastic card versions that work anywhere and seniors prefer the simplicity of plastic, QR Codes require a high cost network connected smart device, an app and are strictly one way read with no offline processing.

JR East and Sony have announced that they will solve cost problems for rural transit and much more in early 2021 with Super Suica.


Update: Open Loop QR Code Security Risks
One issue that was in the back of my mind while writing this post was the privacy and security implications of letting AliPay inside with direct transactions on transit gates. Japanese customers are very sensitive about where and how transaction records are held and used but I have yet to see any security discussion in connection with Hong Kong MTR opening up transit gates to AliPay and WeChat Pay. QR Code transactions are very different from offline FeliCa Octopus transactions. Where and how does the QR Code transaction data from Hong Kong MTR transit gates get stored, does the Chinese government has access to it to gather intelligence from transaction and location records?

If there is one thing we do know about Chinese companies is that they do what they want when nobody is looking. Witness China Telecom spoofing the BGP protocol to poison internet routes and suck up massive amounts of American and Canadian internet traffic for intelligence analysis. If I was living in Hong Kong I would be concerned about the privacy implications of MTR going open loop with QR codes.

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