The Great Big Nankai VISA Touch Transit Boutique

VISA Japan has been busy this year marketing VISA Touch contactless cards with the SMBC group, leveraging the SMBC-GMO-VISA co-venture stera payment platform that launched on July 6. We have already seen a few VISA Touch stera powered ‘transit boutiques’: smallish inbound tourist centric transit companies that don’t support Transit IC cards like Suica and PASMO. This could be changing.

Nankai Electric Railway along with VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd., a SoftBank and hedge funded systems company that develops VISA Touch and QR fare systems among other things, announced a co-venture test of VISA Touch and QR Code open loop fares for ‘inbound tourists’ on Nankai transit gates in 2021. ‘Test’ not ‘rollout’. The wording of the press announcement is vague with photo ‘images’ of what it might look like. It reads more like a VISA PR release than a Nankai one.

To understand why Nankai is testing this it helps to know a few things. Nankai lines service Kansai International Airport that up until COVID hit had a lot of inbound tourists from China visiting Universal Studio Japan in Osaka, amoung other things, the AliPay thing being the most important.

The other thing to know is that Kansai area transit companies (Hankyu, Keihan, Nankai, Hanshin) never developed a PASMO like transit card for non-JR group transit companies. PiTaPa is a failure because it’s a post-pay transit card, a SMBC managed credit card with credit card checks and unsuitable for the commuter pass masses without credit cards. This is why Hankyu ‘borrows’ the JR West ICOCA card for issuing commuter passes. It’s a mess. But it also means that transit companies in the PiTaPa SMBC orbit are in a weaker position, open to SMBC pressure and loan incentives to try VISA Touch open loop (not really open loop when it’s an exclusive VISA Touch arrangement and nothing else right?).

The Japan Transit IC map. Post-pay PiTaPa based transit cards are in a weaker position than regular prepaid transit cards

It also helps to know that stera Panasonic JT-C60 NFC readers are the slowest transit Suica compatible readers I have every used. These same readers are used in VISA Touch transit boutiques and we all know that EMV contactless is slower than FeliCa.

So what is Nankai testing exactly?

(1) Transit gate friction. Transit IC card tap speed is less than 200 milliseconds (ms) while legacy mag strip paper ticketing is 600 ms. The stera Panasonic readers are far slower than 600 ms, if that’s what they end up using for the test…it’s hilarious to imagine Nankai retrofitting a bulky slow Android based NFC reader on a Omron transit gate.

(2) Fare system overhead. How much does the centralized fare processing and linking to VISA and AliPay cost and how does it perform versus local stored value transit IC cards.

The eventual rollout plan will be based on hardware and system cost balanced against the estimate of capturing more inbound transit revenue. There are also transit gate layout issues to consider, is it better to go with slow and fast lane transit gate layout, or retrofit every gate as cheaply as possible. Does any of this make sense in the COVID era when tap speed is more important than ever?

The Real Friction Point: Inbound
We’ll see how it works out but since the advertised point of this effort is for the benefit of inbound tourists, I’ll come out and say it: one of the best things about COVID is the elimination of inbound tourists and their luggage on commuter trains in heavily trafficked areas like JR East Yamanote.

Large groups of people with lots of luggage riding commuter trains during rush hours without following common sense etiquette is a huge stress point for regular commuters. When doors are blocked by luggage and tourists who don’t know, or don’t care about other people using the train, it’s trouble in the making.

The hallmark of any good transit system is safety and reliability, a finely tuned balance of servicing all customers and wisely investing in infrastructure. All too often the grab for inbound tourists ignores this balance at the expense of daily riders. Nankai must keep this in mind. If they do not it will end up being a ‘do less with more’ money losing proposition for Nankai, but not for VISA, SMBC and QUARDRAC.

Contactless Payment Turf Wars: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards

  1. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms
  2. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls
  3. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Why Oyster is missing from mobile
  4. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Tapping the potential of TAP
  5. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Apple Card and the Prepaid Innovation of Apple Pay Suica
  6. >Contactless Payment Turf Wars: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards

Prepaid transit smart cards are micro bank accounts on a card. What started as plastic in the mid 1990’s first transitioned to the cloud based mobile digital card era with Mobile Suica in 2006. Transit cards on mobile digital wallets are much more powerful and malleable than their plastic forebears, and occupy a coveted position in the mobile payments market. Credit card companies and banks spend enormous resources and effort to capture this transit fare business.

Background
Many smart cards use FeliCa and MIFARE. The technology has been on the market since 1994 and one of the reasons for platform popularity and longevity are the rich application development environments they offer (Calypso is also popular but limited to transit applications).

Developers can design a card architecture as ‘smart’ (like Suica) or as ‘dumb’ (like iD) but they are all smart cards because they contain an IC chip. In Japan FeliCa powers not only company ID cards, but also transit cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.), bank payment cards (iD, QUICPay) and rechargeable prepaid eMoney cards that anybody can buy and recharge at convenience stores (WAON, nanaco, Edy). Mobile FeliCa has been in place since 2004.

Smart/Dumb card architecture depends on use case, system processing cost efficiency and need. In a transit fare system, a dumb card use case is slower centralized processing, like waiting at the store checkout for card verification to clear. A transit smart card use case is instant locally processed stored value to keep people moving through the gates because centralized processing isn’t up to the task. This is why transit cards have used the stored value local processing model…until now.

Open Loop 1.0
EMV contactless credit cards arrived on the payments scene starting in 2007 but uptake was slow. Since EMV contactless uses the same NFC A as MIFARE based transit cards, the big EMVCo members (VISA, Mastercard, American Express) came up with a great marketing idea: use EMV contactless credit cards as a transit card. Thus EMV open loop transit was born.

EMV Open Loop 1.0 transit that debuted on Transport for London (TfL) Oyster system in 2014 filled mutual needs for TfL and bank card companies. Despite the success of Oyster, TfL wanted to reduce plastic card issue and management costs:

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.

The Future of Ticketing London Assembly (2011)

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.

How Long Does The Oyster Card Have Left? Londonist (2018)

Using bank cards in place of MIFARE Oyster cards accomplished that and because MIFARE was late to the mobile party TfL management decided decided their mobile strategy would be Apple Pay and Android Pay EMV card support. Meanwhile the bank card companies captured transaction fees from mundane transit fares at the gate, got the benefit of using the float instead of TfL, and got people into the habit of using credit cards for tiny purchase amounts. Our parents thought buying coffee with a credit card instead of small change was ridiculous because credit cards were reserved for ‘serious purchases’. Not anymore.

TfL Open Loop was judged a big success and got rave reviews from tech journalists around the world who hailed it as the future of transit ticketing: time to dump those proprietary transit smart cards and go all in with ‘open standard’ EMV open loop if you want the latest and greatest transit fare system. This gave transit agencies and the governments that run them the wrong idea that EMV is a cure all transit fare system solution.

1.0 shortcomings
The problem is that EMV is not an open standard, it is owned and managed by the proprietary EMVCo that is wholly owned by the major credit card companies. EMV is a ‘one size fits all’ payments technology created for the needs of credit card companies and banks. It was never designed as a transit fare solution and will never evolve to incorporate transit needs. Experts agree:

A universal truth is that each transport market is highly unique. While EMV may be the best solution for some, the reality is that a standardized deployment of this model is not best suited to everyone.

Transit systems shouldn’t confuse open loop pay with EMV

The U.S. has been a tough market for transit agencies to deliver successful open-loop systems into, as banks have not been in step with these ambitions.

Is now the time for open-loop transit in the United States?

There is no escaping the basic reality that EMV is a slow dumb smart card. It works well for what it was designed for: store purchases where card transaction latency is not a problem while the checkout terminal communicates with the bank system that has your account information.

Transit fare systems don’t have your bank account information on file, and there are limits with what the backend transit fare system can do when an anonymous bank card number appears on gate reader where long transaction latency is unacceptable. There are tradeoffs: the card gets verified but the transit bill gets settled long after the transit. This is why EMV open loop 1.0 only works for simple or flat fare structures. The result was a 2 layer fare system on London Oyster, Sydney Opal and Chicago Ventra:

  • Plastic and digital EMV open loop dumb card with basic fare transit for users with approved bank cards
  • Plastic transit MIFARE smart cards covering all fares including special fare discounts, commuter passes, etc., for everybody else

Oyster, Opal and Ventra wanted to add mobile support across the board but this meant supporting EMV and MIFARE. All of these are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems who worked with the bank card companies and came up with a new product to solve the dilemma: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards.

Open Loop 2.0
Apple Pay Ventra is this new EMV closed loop mobile transit card product, the launch gave us a first glimpse of the 3 layer fare system:

  • Plastic and digital EMV open loop dumb cards with basic fare transit for users with approved bank cards
  • Digital EMV closed loop dumb cards that cover regular fares and commute passes with special fares to be added later
  • Legacy plastic MIFARE transit cards for everybody else

It’s still a mixed EMV and MIFARE environment but MIFARE is limited to legacy plastic transit cards that can be bought with cash at station kiosks. But we can be sure that MIFARE will be phased out at some point.

The Apple Pay Ventra model is being used for digital Opal trials on Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, and is on tap for digital Oyster and digital OMNY. A basic outline:

  • The transit card is actually a EMV Mastercard prepaid debit card issued by 3rd party bank
  • The Mastercard as transit card is ‘closed loop’ and can only be used for transit and nothing else
  • The user must create an account to use the digital card. The transit account and prepaid/debit information is centralized and managed by the card issuer, nothing is stored value
  • All digital transit card management and housekeeping (adding or transferring cards, recharge, checking the balance, etc.) must be done in a separate app (Ventra App, Opal App, etc.), nothing can be done directly in Wallet
  • Express Transit is not part of the native EMV card architecture and has to be added as part of broader open loop support on the backend fare system by the operator and Apple, this is why Express Transit is missing in the initial test phase of digital Opal: the current Opal fare system does not support it

As this is an EMV bank card dressed up as a transit card, it is still limited by EMV card architecture and bank card network protocol. In place of local stored value it uses the bank card account model. On mobile this means all card housekeeping is in the app, users can’t create, transfer or recharge transit cards directly in Wallet like Suica, PASMO, SmarTrip or TAP. Apple Watch users can’t recharge EMV transit cards without the iPhone app. And like all cloud dependent services everything stops when networks goes down.

Mobile Suica does an excellent job of balancing and combining the strengths of local processed stored value performance, usability and reliability with the power of cloud attached services. It’s the gold standard of what a transit payment platform on mobile can achieve: leveraging transit card micro accounts to attach services and build business instead of giving it away to banks. Digital Opal testers familiar with Suica notice the difference and missing features:

Open Loop 3.0?
For centralized cloud proponents, including Junya Suzuki, the ultimate dream is having one cloud based account using facial recognition for all payment and transit needs. Cubic and centralized account proponents are already looking to speed up London transit gates beyond slow EMV card technology with barrier free face recognition transit gates:

according to CUBIC…their ‘fastrack gateless gateline’ concept, which is currently conducting small user testing, eliminates physical barriers to form an extended corridor-like gateway that between 65 and 75 users can walk through in a minute, whilst their faces are being scanned and synced for payment with their smartphones

Facial recognition to be your future ticket on the London Underground

The joke here is that, (1) JR East achieved those over 60 people per minute walk through levels with FeliCa based Suica cards and open barrier transit gates long ago, (2) the COVID face mask era is a huge challenge for face recognition systems, (3) Touchless transit, Express Transit on steroids, is already in the works.

Personally I think the Ultra Wideband Touchless approach that leverages personal biometric authentication from the user’s smartphone secure enclave instead of having it hosted on somebody else’s cloud system is the safer and more practical way to go. Privacy advocates will agree.

Speed is safety
Tap speed matters more than even in the COVID era

The next installment of the Contactless Payment Turf Wars
If nothing else closed loop EMV transit dumb cards reveal how bankrupt the ‘open loop is open’ argument really is. All Cubic and the card companies did was swap MIFARE for EMV, neither of which are open. And tap speeds are slower than ever with EMV the supermarket checkout protocol, so now we need Face ID transit gates to speed things up.

It’s fake debate. The real debate is online centralization for fare processing where everybody is forced to have a mobile account whether they need it or want it or not. And once everybody is forced to have an account to use transit the next step is forcing facial recognition.

The short term 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 too much private money to be made off of running the backend services attached to public infrastructure. The long term lesson is that the mobile digital wallet solutions for Ventra, Opal, Oyster and OMNY are not about transit user convenience and all about convenience for misguided transit operators and their subcontractors.


Reader Questions
Instead of answering questions or comments via Twitter etc., I’ll answer here for the benefit of all readers.

Q: Not being able to recharge within Apple Pay has nothing to do with EMV vs. stored value though, right? If anything, that should be easier (just move money between accounts).

A: It’s true that MIFARE stored value transit cards such as HOP Fastpass force users to recharge via the app. The point of the piece is that EMV transit card features are defined by the EMV format, bank card protocols and how it’s all implemented on digital wallet platforms. In short, bank issuers control the feature set on the backend. I have yet to see a recharge button on any EMV prepaid card in Apple Pay Wallet, I suspect we’ll always see most operations limited to bank issuer apps, even for transit.

C: The open loathing of banks and credit card companies is honestly quite nauseating (but understandable, considering what Japanese banks are like, apart from the credit card companies).

A: Banks and card companies have an important place in transit, but card company ‘one size solves all’ open loop marketing is misleading and profitable mischief. A good transit fare system is all about balance, flexibility and incorporating innovation such as mobile wallets, for the benefit of transit users and safe operations. Bank cards for example are a wonderfully convenient recharge backend, this is where they shine and add real value to the transit user experience.

But swapping out a native transit fare system with an outsourced bank card account system and tech package that the transit company doesn’t ‘own’ is asking for trouble. How much is the long term cost when it doesn’t solve everything as promised? Who really benefits: the transit user, the transit company, or the system partners and consultants?

These are the questions I think people should be asking and discussing. Hopefully my posts outline the issues clearly so people can discuss them to find the best fit long term solution based on local transit region conditions.

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.

VISA Japan finally signs on with Apple Pay (Updated)

UPDATE 11/24
Apple pulled the Apple Pay VISA JP rollout, somebody in Cupertino uploaded a new JSON payload to Apple Pay servers too soon. After showing in Wallet for almost 24 hours, VISA disappeared from the add card animation lineup around 6 pm JST. With a gaff this long at least we know VISA support is coming to Apple Pay Japan soon and likely come with the Line Pay Apple Pay card announced in September for launch ‘later this year’. I’m leaving the original post below for now and put put a new post with the official launch.


Japanese credit card otaku tweeted late last night that the Apple Pay Wallet animation started displaying VISA, which it never did until now. Sure enough, VISA displays in the add card animation for the Apple Pay Japan region on iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad. Wallet only displays supported card brands for the selected Apple Pay region so the change means VISA JP is officially on board.

The trouble is we don’t know what that means without a press release from VISA Japan, Apple, or Japanese card issuers. So far we don’t have one. All we have are 2 questions that will hopefully be answered later today or the next few days.

Does it mean current iD/QUICPay VISA cards in Wallet fully support Apple Pay features?
A quick check adding a digital Kyash VISA prepaid card to my Wallet did not show anything new, just the same limitations: no VISA logo, no In App (Suica recharge) or web purchase support, no EMV/FeliCa dual mode. That doesn’t mean anything by itself: virtual Kyash VISA still has the limitations but it may be different for major VISA issuers like SMBC and MUFJ.

Does it mean that Apple Pay is simply matching the EMV only VISA Touch cards already on Google Pay from Sony Bank and others?
This seems more likely but also flies in the face of Apple Pay Japan encouraging ‘it just works anywhere’ dual mode EMV/FeliCa support for Wallet issue. If we don’t get announcements from VISA Japan or Apple, it could be a slow dribble of VISA Touch announcements from VISA JP card issuers, not much fun.

What I really want to know is: did VISA Japan blink, or Apple? I’ll update this post as details come in.

VISA Touch issuers currently on Google Pay

VISA Touch Transit Boutiques

VISA Japan announced VISA Touch support on Kyoto Tango Railway, most media outlets simply ran edited versions of the VISA Japan press release. The infrastructure uses a slightly modified stera store reader platform, which VISA has a hand in. Willer Inc. is hailing this as the first ‘VISA Touch’ solution on Japanese train systems but they ignored the fact that stera VISA Touch was already announced for Ibaraki Transit highway bus service back in July.

Japanese journalist comments on Twitter were fun to read with the ‘let’s just dump FeliCa and Suica already and go all in with EMV’ supporters club checking in as usual. Nobi Hayashi asked good questions regarding real user convenience. Junya Suzuki said he plans a trip to investigate the new service, his next ‘Pay Attention’ column promises to be a good read.

Just what kind of end user are these VISA Touch transit installations targeting anyway? Let’s do a quick profile:

  1. VISA Touch JP plastic cards are being issued in Japan but they are new and few and dwarfed by the number of Transit IC cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) that can be bought by anybody at any station kiosk machine with cash. Apple Pay Japan users cannot use it because VISA JP refuses to support Apple Pay JP FeliCa/EMV dual mode NFC switching. This service is not targeted for domestic transit users.
  2. Both of these VISA Touch installation transit areas market heavily to inbound tourists, neither of them support Transit IC cards.
  3. VISA Touch is not compatible with PBOC Union Pay cards technology, the installations also support QR Code AliPay and WeChat Pay for inbound Chinese tourists

The short summary is these installations are for inbound tourists with VISA Touch contactless credit cards, a transit boutique for marketing purposes more than real use.

Japanese media is quick to dismiss FeliCa as a technical failure in the face of EMV but I think that is the wrong analysis. Looking back it’s easy to see a huge mistake was that the big push for Mobile FeliCa credit cards on smartphones was not matched with an equally big push for plastic credit cards with FeliCa support.

And the big EMV push instead of FeliCa has not worked out so great either. Instead of making a technology agnostic unified push for NFC contactless, EMV bank card interests pushed their own agenda. All that did was provide a big opening for domestic QR Code payment players like Line Pay and Pay Pay which they took and continue to take.

What I find fascinating is that the mainstream Japanese IT media has not written much about the Super Suica 2 in 1 card strategy or rollout plans. Low cost transit IC card infrastructure sharing that delivers consistent and seamless transit service on mobile and legacy plastic while offering local area branding and services is a compelling vision that I don’t see bank card companies matching.

The challenge for JR group companies (JR West, JR Central, JR Kyushu, etc.) is working with JR East to offer Super Suica 2 in 1 card solutions in their own regions, because if they do not we’ll see more VISA Touch transit boutiques.