Transit Cards on Mobile

The long delayed Apple Pay Octopus finally launched in June. Apple Pay Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards launched in May. Rumors said that hosting China T-Union transit cards on Apple Pay is easier than Octopus. Is this true? Let’s take a look.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit agencies. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorOS/Digital WalletNFCProtocol
2006
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015
TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay/Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017
Beijing/Shanghai TransitChinaBMAC/SPTCCApple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018
iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay/Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019
HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced/delayed)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020
ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
Mobile SuicaTokyoJR EastGarmin PayFMobile FeliCa
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple PayFMobile FeliCa
*iOS 11 Apple Pay Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were not full spec PBOC 2.0 and listed as ‘beta’

Mobile transit card protocol overview
Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC, the slowest of the three protocols designed for supermarket checkout not transit gates.

While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit.

It may be a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate (comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan) and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, taps times really matter. Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa.

Open Loop NFC ticketing (in its current form, EMVCo Contactless specifications are adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec and uses the ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro is never supposed but as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes.

YouTube comment explaining the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada), lightly edited for clarity

The PBOC Protocol

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

The interesting thing here is that many Greater Bay Area transit cards were FeliCa based cards but are migrating to the PBOC 2.0 powered China T-Union cards that are much slower. Users notice the difference:

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <PBOC 2.0 China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong

Despite the slower gate speeds the PBOC 2.0 China T-union card spec is the Chinese mainland standard for interoperable transit cards on plastic and mobile that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc.

This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Mobile transit cards vs Open Loop
Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS. MIFARE has a shorter history on mobile, PBOC 2.0/3.0 is basically new. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay. Initial Apple Pay support for Beijing and Shanghai transit cards was listed as beta on iOS 11.3. The early Apple implementation was not the full PBOC 2.0/3.0 spec, apparently fixed in iOS 12.3 when the beta label was removed.

One of the biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are some 257 China T-Union transit card compatible transit authorities already on mobile?

Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce costs for both fare collection and plastic card issue. The downside is that open loop eats up precious system resources so that banks can get a cut from transit gate transactions. The end result is that native transit card mobile support is a secondary priority, if at all.

Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.

China T-Union: streamlined for mobile
Putting aside the open loop fad for a moment, the large deployment of China T-Union cards on mobile comes down to a few simple things that has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware. It is all about streamlining:

  1. All China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by UnionPay. It’s the reason why China T-Union sports a similar logo and the reason why transit cards can only be recharged with a UnionPay card. It’s all one package.
  2. China T-Union cards on mobile have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. Local transit agency transit card apps are intentionally crippled and do not support any NFC features. Apple Support pages do not mention plastic card transfer:

You can create a new transit card in Wallet to use with Apple Pay. The first transit card that you add to Wallet automatically becomes your Express Transit card.

Add a transit card to Apple Pay in mainland China

Eliminating plastic card transfers reduces management hotlist headaches and the common UnionPay recharge backend shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards much easier. The various transit operators only need to plug into the network. They don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because UnionPay is the only payment network.

China T-Union in the cards for Hong Kong Octopus?
China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a streamlined straightjacket: UnionPay is the only payment network allowed, there are far fewer service options than Suica or Octopus systems. The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the UnionPay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.

Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.

Unfortunately in the face of pressure MTR/OCL, a world leading transit platform business model and innovator, has been surprisingly slow rolling out virtual Octopus card service on digital wallets to encourage the migration from plastic cards with new kinds of mobile services. It’s a troubling turn of events because OCL has all the necessary transit on mobile infrastructure in place to move forward quickly but progress is painfully slow.

The Hong Kong protests followed by the COVID-19 crisis have certainly slowed things down. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card.

Put another way, Octopus is living on borrowed time. If OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.

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