Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop card

Apple Pay Ventra finally launched October 26, 2020, a very long wait after the March 25, 2019 Apple Event announcement. I wrote about the delay blaming it on open loop when the Washington SmarTrip and LA TAP cards landed on Apple Pay first.

Ventra has a long glitchy open loop history from its debut with the ill-fated Mastercard debit Ventra. Streets Blog had this to say about it in 2017.

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
A $2 fee for a paper statement
A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies

“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

StreetsBlog Chicago December 2017

Getting Ventra out of the bank card business is easier said than done when the whole system is designed around open loop. Mastercard stopped issuing Ventra branded prepaid debit cards in 2017 but they have managed Ventra account services all this time. The Ventra plastic card is MIFARE DESFire EV1 which fits the standard Cubic Transportation Systems management style: all of the various transit card systems they manage around the world were designed and built with MIFARE stored value cards at the core. These include Chicago Ventra, London Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington SmarTrip, LA TAP, etc.

An Apple Pay Ventra Wallet screenshot from a Japanese Twitter user revealed a fascinating bit of information. Apple Pay transit cards like Suica, SmarTrip and TAP all show a stored value card balance. Apple Pay Ventra does not, it shows a card number like a Wallet credit card. This means Apple Pay Ventra is a reincarnated Mastercard prepaid debit card, but this time it’s disguised as a mobile transit card with Mastercard running card account services.

Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop transit card
Tech blog coverage of the Apple Pay Ventra launch only mentioned Express Transit but there are important limitations:

  1. Ventra Card on iPhone 6S and later / Apple Watch Series 1 and later, can only be used on the CTA and Pace bus services, but not Metra or Pace Paratransit. RTA and Student Reduced Fare cards, including U-Pass cards, and free ride Ventra Cards cannot be added to Apple Wallet yet. (from StreetsBlog Chicago)
  2. Direct reload/recharge in Wallet is not supported because the EMV format itself does not support local stored value. You have to reload the card in Ventra App. This really sucks for Apple Watch Ventra users. In the United States only Apple Pay TAP and Apple Pay SmarTrip support Wallet recharge, interestingly those systems are closed loop.

We have the following pieces: open loop, Cubic fare system management, Mastercard managed Ventra account services, MIFARE for plastic cards, EMV for mobile digital cards with a closed reload/recharge model that limits everything from card issue and recharge to Ventra App, and slow tap speeds.

The result is a centralized account processing mishmash of open loop and closed loop parts, ‘heavy’ in every performance aspect that pales in comparison to the local stored value process speed and flexibility of a user friendly Apple Pay Suica•PASMO that works across subway, bus and rail, for both fixed and distance fares.

The mishmash only works for CTA fixed fares and transit fare readers ‘live’ in the system. Distance based METRA fare are outside of the system with one time ticket purchases shown to the train conductor. Because everything is centralized account processing, all Ventra housekeeping must be done in the Ventra app unlike Apple Pay Suica•PASMO users who can live without an app or account: everything from recharge to card creation can be done in Wallet.

Simply put, Apple Pay Ventra is the digital rebirth of the problematic open loop based Mastercard Ventra prepaid debit card that is closed and only works on the Ventra system. The Sydney Opal card is about to enter digital wallet tests with Mastercard running the show with a similar set of Ventra pieces: Mastercard EMV issue for mobile, MIFARE plastic cards, Cubic management, etc. Expect similar results.

EMV transit cards: next installment of the Contactless Payment Turf Wars
If nothing else Apple Pay Ventra reveals how flimsy the ‘open loop is open’ argument really is: the Apple Pay Ventra prepaid debit card as transit card can only be used on the Ventra system. How open is that? All they did was swap MIFARE for EMV, neither of which are open. And tap speeds are slower than ever with EMV, aka the supermarket checkout protocol.

It’s fake debate. The real debate is online centralized fare processing where everybody is forced to have a mobile account whether they need it or want it or not, versus offline local fare processing where mobile accounts are optional. Guess which model delivers faster tap speeds while doing a better job of protecting your online privacy.

The lesson here is that when transit agencies let banks and card companies run the transit fare concession, they will never be free of them: there’s just too much private money to be made off of running the backend services attached to public infrastructure. And the bank card industry has no interest in improving their slow EMV supermarket checkout card spec for transit. Nobody in Sydney will bother asking who ends up getting the float interest from Opal cards when Mastercard runs the account backend. Card issuers like it that way.

The only question remaining is this: now that we know the Ventra EMV Mastercard prepaid debit card as mobile digital transit card is same one for mobile Opal…will it be the same for MTA mobile OMNY and TfL mobile Oyster? I suspect so: this is the new Cubic mobile transit card business model with NXP MIFARE the loser in this latest installment of the contactless payment turf wars.

UPDATE

A reader was kind enough to scan his Apple Pay Ventra card with a NFC tag reading app. Results confirmed what I outline above: Apple Pay Ventra is a EMV Mastercard prepaid debit disguised as a transit card. This officially marks a migration away from stored value MIFARE transit cards to stored in the cloud EMV prepaid debit cards for mobile digital transit card systems managed by Cubic.

Specifically it means the local stored value information that was held by the MIFARE plastic card has been migrated to an online Mastercard managed account for Apple Pay Ventra as the EMV credit card format wasn’t designed for local stored value. Just like the title says: Apple Pay Ventra is a closed open loop card.