Apple Pay Ventra: the closed loop EMV 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 loop EMV 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 standards. 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.

Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


Blame the Apple Pay Ventra delay on open loop

Washington DC SmarTrip and Greater Los Angeles TAP transit cards both launched on Apple Pay the first week of September within days of each other. They upstaged Apple Pay Ventra which was announced as ‘coming soon’ way back in March 2019 but has yet to launch. Chicago Ventra users are understandably frustrated with the ‘coming soon’ Apple Pay Ventra, especially when CTA celebrates the Apple Pay SmarTrip rollout with another Ventra ‘coming soon’ ad.

All three fare systems are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems who also run the London Oyster and Sydney Opal systems. Cubic systems all use the same MIFARE smartcard technology but the interesting thing about SmarTrip and TAP is: (1) they are the first Cubic managed digital wallet transit cards, (2) neither system has implemented open loop fare payments for tap and go credit cards.

Ventra, Oyster and Opal all have open loop, and as of this writing Cubic has yet to deliver those transit cards on digital wallets. Why?

The SmarTrip/TAP Apple Pay launch gave us the answer that nobody wants to discuss: open loop support adds a layer of complexity and cost that stymies native digital transit card support. Complexity and higher cost means fewer choices, delays, and mediocre performance, simple as that.

Steve Jobs explained it best in his last public appearance. A great product or service comes down to focus and choices, either you can focus on making certain technologies work great on your platform versus just okay when you’re spreading yourself too thin. Ventra is spread too thin, that’s why Apple Pay Ventra and Google Pay Ventra are delayed more than a year after being announced.

Open Loop is sold as the cost effective future of transit ticketing but it’s had a surprisingly rocky time in the American market. The failure is pinned on transit companies but I think credit companies are to blame. The arguments for open loop are plastic era constructs that ignore how mobile digital wallet platforms and mobile apps have changed everything. For example the oft cited open loop benefit of plastic smartcard issue cost savings completely overlooks the cost savings of digital transit cards on smartphones.

It’s high time for the credit card industry to rewrite the open loop marketing script for the mobile era, but they don’t want to do that. Expect more of the same. In the meantime, let’s hope the SmarTrip and TAP Apple Pay rollout is a sign that Chicago will be getting Apple Pay Ventra soon.

UPDATE: Apple Pay Ventra finally launched October 26 2020, more than a year after it was announced. And, surprise surprise, it’s a EMV Mastercard debit/prepaid card disguised as a transit card, the world’s first closed open loop card.

Farewell FeliCa Octopus, save the last tap for me

During the 2019 Apple Pay Octopus saga one thing was clear: Octopus was living on borrowed time. On the eve of the Apple Pay Octopus launch:

Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) has been slow extending the service to include mobile. Instead of putting early effort into digital wallet support for Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay, OCL wasted time and resources developing the niche Mobile SIM product which didn’t pan out. This lag coupled with the rise of AliPay and WeChat Pay QR Code payment empires put enormous pressure on OCL to do something…

With so much traffic and business from the mainland, OCL owner MTR is looking to add QR Code Open Loop transit support (paywalled link)…MTR gates will eventually look like the ones in Guangzhou with PBOC/FeliCa/QR Code readers supporting Octopus, China T-Union, AliPay/WeChat Pay. At which point I say OCL doesn’t have a viable transit platform business anymore.

I hoped the success of Apple Pay Octopus would buy it time, but on August 28 the South China Morning Post published a story where OCL CEO Sunny Cheung says they will join the China T-Union initiative for seamless transit integration between Hong Kong and China. He to goes out of his way a few times in the interview to say how ‘old’ NFC technology is:

Cheung said internet users’ criticism of Octopus being a tech laggard died down in June after people were allowed to add their Octopus account to Apple Wallet on their iPhones. Cheung, who admitted he was stung by the criticism, regarded Octopus’ breakthrough on the iPhone as one of the best times of his stint with the company. “This was one of my biggest challenges,” he said. “The breakthrough helped refresh Octopus’ image even though it is still using NFC technology.”

Hong Kong’s Octopus aims to spread tentacles with contactless card for paying fares in mainland China

Obviously Sunny thinks that QR Codes are cutting edge. He is retiring and doesn’t care about criticism of his disastrous OCL tenure, or scalping inbound tourists who want to use Apple Pay Octopus.

Hard Reality
China has ruthlessly weeded out MIFARE and FeliCa transit cards and replaced them with the slower PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union standard, aka the supermarket checkout spec. Octopus will eventually get the same China T-Union lobotomy.

If OCL went deep instead of cheap Octopus would go ‘dual mode’: a single card with separate NFC protocols and currency purses: NFC-A/China T-Union RMB and NFC-F/Octopus HKD. In this scenario Hong Kong Octopus remains on FeliCa with the rest of China on PBOC China T-Union.

Unfortunately OCL will likely go cheap instead of deep…. a single protocol China T-Union PBOC 2.0/3.0 card that works everywhere, and on mobile, for all mainland transit and for mainlander transit in Hong Kong. There is also the plastic card issue business angle to consider. Read FeliCa Dude’s Octopus on iPhone 7 post paying special attention to the Octopus plastic card issue steps that he outlines. The Hong Kong powers that be would like that profitable franchise sourced locally or in mainland and not from Sony.

‘One country two systems’ was an illusion. Hong Kong is being force fitted into China, nothing is sacred, there are no hold outs. It may take a few years, but as MTR transit gates and OCL store readers are gradually replaced with newer models, those readers will all have dual mode FeliCa/PBOC support. And when everything is ready, MTR and OCL will simply turn off FeliCa. FeliCa based Octopus has had a great run that influenced transit fare system development around the world. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The Apple Pay monopoly debate: are we really comparing Apples with Apples?

Ruimin Yang’s detailed and thoughtful post, “Apple Pay monopoly, are we really comparing ‘Apples’ with ‘Apples?“, outlines the entire Apple Pay system architecture, how it compares to other digital wallet platforms, (Google Pay, Samsung Pay) and what ‘open vs closed’ means in the whole ‘Apple Pay is a monopoly’ debate. I highly recommend it if you have any interest in digital wallet payments.

As Yang explains, ‘open’ is not easily defined and the options are not easily implemented, especially when it comes to Apple’s highly customized and constantly evolving Apple Pay platform built around their A/S series chip Secure Enclave and Embedded Secure Element. Apple has spent a lot of time, money and effort in building the Apple Pay brand as the high benchmark standard for secure, private and easy to use digital wallet transactions and services. It is not your standard off the shelf NFC + Secure Element package.

It is telling that Germany, a country with one of lowest rates of credit card use and whose banks fought to keep Apple Pay out, is pushing for ‘open NFC’ the most. It sounds like an across the board move but it’s really aimed at Apple Pay.

This is European business politics in the age of digital wallet wars: mobile payments and digital wallets have disrupted everything and the traditional players, banks and card companies i.e. the real gatekeepers, are doing everything they can to keep the upper hand by using the open NFC argument to force their own branding on Apple’s platform in place of Apple Pay.

In the European tradition, regulation is invariably the go to strategy for keeping the status quo. I still think Junya Suzuki has it right: the EU would never demand the same thing of Samsung or Huawei that they are demanding from Apple. In other words, politics.

Previous coverage:
What does open Apple Pay NFC really mean? (11-17-2019)
The Apple Pay EU antitrust investigation (6-20-2020)