One glaring weakness of the Japan Transit IC system is that it’s not universal even on the very rail networks that built the system. Suica for example is mostly absent in stations outside of Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai metro regions, roughly half of JR East stations. It comes down to cost: hard wiring every station is expensive. This cost problem is one that JR East plans to address by rolling out a cloud based low cost ‘simple Suica’ for all stations. They already missed a 2020 deadline and need to deliver on their promise if Suica is remain a viable payments competitor in the hyper competitive Japanese market.
JR West meanwhile is busy expanding ICOCA coverage on the their rail network with Fukuchiyama and Kisei line additions going into operation March 13, 2021. JR West also added ICOCA connecting commuter passes for Osaka Metro in December, the kind of arrangement that Suica and PASMO have had in place for years. It makes sense for JR West to expand now in preparation for the Mobile ICOCA launch in 2023.
The Kisei line is somewhat unique in that smaller stations are unmanned and local trains are one man operations with passengers getting off at the front for ticket verification. ICOCA readers are located at car exit points, passengers tap out similar to using a bus. This kind of operation would fit well on similar ‘one man’ operations like the JR Central Minobu line which are still limited to paper tickets.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
Huawei Pay Octopus launched on December 9, the second digital Octopus 2020 launch after Apple Pay Octopus on June 2. The device list is interesting: Huawei Mate 40 Pro, P40, P40 Pro, P40 Pro+, P30, P30 Pro, Mate 30, Mate 30 Pro, Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro, Mate RS Porsche, Mate Xs, Nova 7 5G. A wide range of Huawei models sold in Hong Kong have global NFC support, at least on the smartphone side but does not include the G2 Pro smartwatch.
In Japan the only Huawei models with global NFC/Mobile FeliCa/Osaifu Keitai support are the P20 and P30 and only with a Docomo sim. Huawei Pay is not supported in Japan. The Huawei Pay Octopus device list tells us what we suspected all along: Huawei Pay is global NFC capable but Huawei kneecaps it so they can sell devices via Docomo. Huawei Pay can turn things on and off because, just like Apple Pay, Huawei has a custom embedded Secure Element (eSE), so does OPPO and so will Xiaomi in 2021.
So where does Google Pay fit in this scheme? It doesn’t. And it could be one of the things Google hopes to address with their own SoC, but a custom eSE is probably a long shot. That is unless Google is serious about making global NFC Google Pay work seamlessly on Pixel and Fitbit devices by dumping Osaifu Keitai and going all in with a custom eSE. If Google persists in wanting it both ways, limited NFC Google Pay for everybody and global NFC Google Pay in Pixel for Japan only, expect more of the confusing Android global NFC support mess we have now.
wena 3 Mobile Suica is very similar to Garmin Suica with the same Google Pay recharge backend and limitations: no commute plans, etc. Apple Watch Suica is still king of the wearables with a full feature set and PASMO support too, nevertheless Android users, and some iPhone users, will enjoy using Suica on a cool looking device. No word about PASMO support though I expect it will come eventually.