Japan’s new economic zone: Rakuten

The April 30 addition of iPhone 12 lineup to Rakuten Mobile marked the transformation of Rakuten Mobile into a first tier carrier on the same level of Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank. Now that SoftBank is taking Rakuten to court over allegedly stolen SoftBank corporate secrets, I think we know who is feeling the pressure. It is the end of an era. SoftBank was the first carrier to launch iPhone in Japan back in 2007 when NTT Docomo refused and KDDI au could not (the Verizon iPhone problem). They cleverly used iPhone to leverage their position from an industry also-ran into a serious first tier carrier grabbing marketshare for the other majors.

Rakuten Mobile is now playing the hungry upstart with fresh ideas and aggressive plans: pay for what you actually use instead of paying for a monthly allotment just like the good old land line days…how original. Nevertheless SoftBank feels threatened not only by Rakuten Mobile but the total weight of the Rakuten Empire: Rakuten Pay which encompasses Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica, and most of all, Rakuten Point.

SoftBank has similar parts, PayPay and TPoint/TMoney, but they are not well integrated across the SoftBank empire and more importantly, they don’t have the synergy of Rakuten. That’s why people in their 20~40’s are sometimes referred to as living in the Rakuten economic zone, leveraging Rakuten Point as currency ‘plus’ to make their real money go much farther for all of their needs.

But there’s one more thing. Now that Rakuten Mobile has the full iPhone lineup, it’s only a matter of time before Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica join Apple Pay. That is SoftBank’s true nightmare.

Sitting out the super upgrade cycle

We are in a 5G super upgrade cycle but I’m sitting this one out. 3 year carrier contracts without subsidies are the norm in Japan now, technically I have until September 2022 to pay off my iPhone 11 Pro but 5G by itself isn’t enough reason to pay it off faster. If foldable smartphones are the super upgrade in 2023, I’m probably going to sit out that super upgrade too.

Why? After buying into the iPhone X hype and getting badly burned by the iPhone X NFC problem, I was badly burned again by Face ID in the COVID face mask era. And no, iOS 14.5 Unlock with Apple Watch is no magic solution. I’m not done with new cutting edge technology but sharp edges hurt. Less is more in the long run. Let’s just say I’m going to choose my next iPhone upgrade very carefully.

Octopus 2.0

The Apple Pay Octopus launch in June 2020 marked the end of an era of Octopus as the exclusive Hong Kong MTR home grown transit platform, and the start of MTR integrating into China mainland transit fare standards. In August 2020 Octopus Cards Limited announced they would join China T-Union. My take about it and the eventual migration of Octopus from FeliCa to PBOC 2.0, struck a raw nerve and did not go down well with some Hong Kong folk:

Can someone tell the ill-informed, self-centred, attention-seeking blogger to stop spreading fake rumours about octopus ditching FeliCa? Not in this lifetime…The self-proclaimed expert blogger’s been wrong on so many levels I’m amazed people still follow him like religion and never question his fantasy stories. Utterly annoyed by him dropping quotes from people out of context and use them to his benefits.

In April 2021 new OCL CEO Angus Lee Chun-ming said in a South China Morning Post interview that OCL had applied for China T-Union membership as planned, and will launch a dual mode Octopus card for mainland transit use:

“We have applied to join the China T-Union, the nationwide one-card payment system led by the Ministry of Transport. That will enable Octopus physical-card holders to pay for public transport fares in mainland China,”…

The service can be upgraded to digital Octopus cards in the phase two development. “The card will be denominated in Hong Kong dollars. Octopus will arrange the currency settlement with the mainland partner,” said Lee.

A one-card nationwide payment system eh? Sounds like an plug for China T-Union instead of an Octopus presser. Phase 1 is a physical dual mode Octopus card that appears to be 2 separate chips (PBOC and FeliCa) in one card with a common HKD ePurse. This is novel as Greater Bay Area dual mode cards up to now used separate ePurses for each currency. It’s also complicated because mainland transit operators have to do the currency conversion. A digital wallet version is phase 2. The elimination of FeliCa on the Hong Kong side will be the final phase, though that depends on the Ministry of Transport removing the current PBOC restriction that limits it to transit use and T-Union branding issue, or Octopus coming up with something else. We shall see.

On the mobile side Hong Kong iPhone users already have a dual mode Wallet option to add China T-Union cards if they have a China UnionPay credit or debit card. It’s not dual mode on one card and there is an Express Transit issue when turning on a China T-Union card turns off Express Transit for Octopus, but it works.

Dual mode transit cards on Apple Pay don’t exist yet but they are technically possible. Apple Pay already uses dual mode NFC switching for Japanese issue payment cards, FeliCa for contactless use in Japan, EMV for contactless use abroad. Another option might be the multiple secure element domain/multiple NFC protocol support of Mobile FeliCa 4.1 outlined by FeliCa Dude for dual mode transactions using just Mobile FeliCa with NFC-A/NFC-F.

On the transit gate side it will be interesting to see what design MTR uses for multiple protocol open-loop. NFC requires the reader side to specify the NFC protocol used for the transaction. This is a not a problem at store checkout, but how does the user specify the transaction protocol on transit gates? Answer: by tapping different readers. Perhaps the new MTR gates will host a NFC-A reader (EMV and PBOC), a NFC-F reader (FeliCa) in addition to the already separate QR reader? One thing for sure, transitions are messy, and expensive.

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. 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.