Opal digital transit card trial for Apple Pay and Samsung Pay

NSW announced a public beta test for Opal digital card in October and rolled it out today for Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. Trial users can register, and if one of the lucky chosen ones, install and use Opal digital on their device. iPhone trial users will need to download the Opal digital app via Apple’s TestFlight developer app.

As this is a trial there are limitations and the one for Apple Pay transit users is huge: no Express Transit. Hopefully this will be fixed before the official launch as Opal digital is a very awkward service without it: users have to authenticate Apple Pay at each transit gate, a real drag for Face ID users with face masks, users also have to be careful of EMV card clash.

Other limitations will not be fixed because of system design. This means there is no ‘add money’ button in Wallet and all card house keeping tasks from recharge to checking the balance can only be done in Opal digital app. This is a pain for iPhone users but a huge pain for Apple Watch users. For some it will mean digital Opal is unusable: Apple Pay Suica • PASMO work without an iPhone app and can be recharged on the go, not so for digital Opal.

The overall service seems to be what I predicted at the Apple Pay Ventra launch: a closed open loop prepaid/debit Mastercard disguised as a digital transit card with the backend account managed by the Mastercard issuer, in this case EML Payments.

Transport for NSW says they expect to officially launch digital Opal in 2021. I will update this post as field report details trickle in from trial users.

Super Suica 2 in 1 Region Cards

JR East Super Suica 2 in 1 card announcements are coming regularly. Instead of separate posts I’m listing all cards here and will update the table as new cards are announced.

2 in 1 Region Card List
As of November 30, 2020, we have 6 Super Suica 2 in 1 Region Cards.

RegionTypeAnnouncedLaunchPartners
UtsunomiyaBus & Light Rail2019-7-9March 2021 (Bus)
March 2022 (Rail)
Kanto Transportation
JR Bus Kanto
Utsunomiya Light Rail
Iwate PrefectureBus2020-1-16March 2021Iwate Kotsu Co. Ltd.
Iwate PrefectureBus2020-10-20March 2021Northern Iwate Transportation
Hachinohe CityBus2020-10-21March 2022Northern Iwate Transportation
Hachinohe City Bus
Aomori CityBus2020-11-19March 2022Aomori City Bus
Akita CityBus2020-11-30March 2022Akita Chuo Kotsu Co. Ltd.

Details are spare but from the announcements so far we can expect:

  • Local Branding: Super Suica 2 in 1 Region cards will have their own branding, commuter passes and reward points. I suspect local reward points can be exchanged with JRE POINT as well. There will also likely be special services and discounts for local area residents linked to Ny Number Card.
  • Suica benefits: Though they have different branding, local region 2 in 1 cards are Suica cards with all the Suica infrastructure benefits including Mobile Suica, Shinkansen eTickets, Transit IC compatibility, eMoney, etc.
  • Contactless: eliminating paper tickets and hard cash in areas without Transit IC cards in the COVID era is a good thing though credit card companies are marketing the hell out of it too. More on the subject in a this post.

Super Suica offers the benefits of Suica infrastructure to local transit agencies within the JR East area who don’t have the resources to launch or maintain their own Transit IC card system. Plugging orphaned regions into the wider transit network with the same infrastructure is the sensible thing to do, I wish JR East had done this years ago. We should see more announcements in the coming months and Japanese press coverage as the first services prepare to launch in March 2021.

Related Posts
Road to Super Suica: cloud integration and the transit card push to mobile
Road to Super Suica: 2 in 1 shared infrastructure and mobile transit card expansion update
Smells like Super Suica: next generation FeliCa

Super Suica 2 in 1 cards announced for Aomori and Akita City buses (Updated)

Super Suica diagram

Another day, another JR East Super Suica 2 in 1 card announcement, this one for Aomori City buses due to launch in spring 2022, just about the same time as Mobile ICOCA. This is the 3rd and 4th Super Suica 2 in 1 card announcement so far:

The latest announcements are similar to earlier press releases but there are some interesting new details that shed more light on what the Super Suica service will look like.

  • Local Branding: Super Suica 2 in 1 local area cards will have their own branding and reward points. I suspect local reward points can be exchanged for or plug into the JRE POINT system as well. There will also likely be special services and discounts for local area residents linked to Ny Number Card.
  • Suica benefits: Though they have different branding local 2 in 1 cards are Suica cards with all the Suica infrastructure benefits including Mobile Suica, Shinkansen eTickets, Transit IC compatibility, eMoney, etc.
  • Contactless: eliminating paper tickets and hard cash in areas without Transit IC cards in the COVID era is a good thing though credit card companies are marketing the hell out of it too. More on this in a later post.

Super Suica offers the benefits of Suica infrastructure to local transit agencies within the JR East area who don’t have the resources to launch or maintain their own Transit IC card system. Plugging those orphaned areas into the wider transit network with the same infrastructure is the sensible thing to do, I wish JR East had done this years ago. We should see more announcements in the coming months and Japanese press coverage as the first services prepare to launch in March 2021.

UPDATE
Super Suica 2 in 1 card announced for Akita City buses on November 30.

Reader Question: what’s the point of Apple Pay My Suica?

A reader asked a very good question: what’s the point of an Apple Pay My Suica? Can’t you already migrate a normal ‘unregistered’ Suica to another device if you loose your device?

There are 3 basic Suica plastic card categories: unregistered, registered (My Suica) and commuter. PASMO and all other major Transit IC card are the same. An unregistered Suica card just spits out of the station kiosk after putting money in and you are on your way, but it cannot be replaced or re-issued if lost. Buy a new one, end of story.

With a registered My Suica card, the customer registers a name and other information on the kiosk touchscreen and if the card is lost it can be re-issued for a fee with the original stored balance intact. It’s Suica insurance. Same deal for Commuter Suica which is registered Suica with a commute plan attached.

Mobile Suica uses the same 3 category card model but Apple Pay Suica changed the game considerably. When a user transfers any flavor of plastic Suica to Apple Pay, the card is permanently linked to the user Apple ID. When a user creates a Suica card in Wallet it creates a My Suica card also attached to Apple ID. Apple Pay Suica cards also seem to be ‘ghost’ registered to Mobile Suica even when the user does not have a Mobile Suica account. Only the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica system elves really know what is going on.

The upside for Apple Pay users is that Apple Pay and Mobile Suica preserve Suica card information so the user can safely remove Suica from Wallet, re-add it, or transfer it to another device at any time. It’s free insurance without the hassle of registering a Mobile Suica account. All Suica card types are treated the same. The downside is that if you want to migrate to Android you have to delete your Mobile Suica account and refund the card, then create a new card and Mobile Suica account for Google Pay Suica. It’s the same deal going migrating the other way.

To answer the reader question regarding the point of Apple Pay My Suica, the point is this: commute plans, auto-charge, Green Car seat purchase. The point of Apple Pay Registered PASMO is similar: commute plans and auto-charge. All this is done via Suica App or PASMO App. If you don’t want those extra services, a plain unregistered Suica or PASMO is all you need.

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. Reload/Recharge in Wallet is not supported, you have to do it 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. The mishmash only works because only CTA fixed fares are transit gate ‘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.