Special Mobile Suica Maintenance Notice

JR East issued a Mobile Suica system maintenance notice, the downtime will run longer than usual: all services will be offline from midnight to 6:30 am March 21 JST. This includes Apple Pay Suica recharge so be sure to recharge before then, or use cash recharge at the nearest convenience store.

The special maintenance is related to the recent Shinkansen eTicket service launch and preparation for an updated Eki-net App that will eventually support it.

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JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch

Today, March 14, marks the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.

Mobile PASMO Q&A

What is Mobile PASMO?
Mobile PASMO is an app service, identical to Mobile Suica, for Android v6 Osaifu Keitai devices or later. Users can recharge a virtual PASMO card on the device with a registered credit card, purchase or renew commute plans, view use history, restore the PASMO card from the cloud in case of a lost device, PASMO bus transit users can also earn ‘Bus Toku’ points. Mobile PASMO launched March 18. Details are listed on the Mobile PASMO site (Japanese only).

Is it compatible with Google Pay? (Updated)
Not at this time. Users need to be careful: active Google Pay can block Mobile PASMO transactions. Bank cards are limited to Mobile PASMO app registered credit cards: American Express, JCB, Mastercard, Visa. Credit card registration is processed by PASMO and seems to be the weakest part of the system where users are experiencing the most trouble (the rest of the system appears to be licensed Mobile Suica IT assets). Only Japanese issue cards are accepted.

Is the Mobile PASMO app multi-lingual? (Updated)
Everything is Japanese language only. Android users can download the Mobile PASMO app on Google Play.

Can I use Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device? (Updated)
Only 6 recent Osaifu Keitai Type 1 devices support multiple transit card installs. On older Type 2 devices you can only install one and have to choose. As FeliCa Dude explains in his excellent Reddit post, “Mobile PASMO: the “me-too” that’s all about them, and not you” the Mobile FeliCa Android stack on older FeliCa chip devices isn’t like Apple Pay and does not support multiple transit cards or the ability to select one for Express Transit. Type 1 devices updated to Osaifu Ketai 8.2.1 can set one (and only one) ‘main card’ for Express Transit use, with Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device. Here is a full device list of Type 1 (Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO), Type 2 (Mobile Suica or Mobile PASMO), Type 3 (Mobile Suica).

I have a Mobile PASMO capable Type 2 device, which mobile transit service should I use?
It all comes down to commuter pass use, if you live in the Suica/PASMO region and use a JR East line on any part of your commute, Mobile Suica gives you the most options. If you do not use a JR East line as part of your commute, Mobile PASMO is the natural choice.

Will Mobile PASMO be coming to Apple Pay? (Updated)
iOS 13.4 has some indications that Mobile PASMO might be coming at some point. Mobile PASMO uses licensed Mobile Suica assets and technology, the backend is very similar with a different operator. Apple Pay Wallet does have the ability to host multiple transit cards and select one for Express Transit. In theory a user could have a Suica and a PASMO together in Wallet. We’ll have to wait and see if the PASMO group has enough cloud resources to plug into Apple Pay/Google Pay and how willing they are to deal with non-JP issue credit cards.

Isn’t next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica supposed to fix this? (Updated)
Mobile PASMO throws cold water on the one big happy mobile transit family concept of next generation Suica: sharing resources instead of “me too” fiefdoms. Even if the new card architecture fixes all the current shortcomings, which it is supposed to do, nothing can fix the selfish mindset of transit companies who refuse to cooperate. As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is a boondoggle, the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commute plans. I suspect that auto-charge transit company premium branded credit cards are getting in the way. Japanese transit companies need to put aside old grudges and cooperate intelligently to get all transit players on mobile as fast as possible. Everybody loses out if they do not.

UPDATE: Japanese programmers digging into Mobile PASMO details find that PASMO licensed Mobile Suica IT assets for Mobile PASMO service. This makes a lot of sense and is an encouraging sign that Mobile Suica cloud resources can be licensed to host other transit IC cards for mobile (ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, etc.).

UPDATE 2: Junya Suzuki posted an article with more Mobile PASMO system details. One leading company in the PASMO Association (Tobu, Keio or Odakyu) licensed Mobile Suica assets and technology from JR East. Cut and paste IT. As said above, this is encouraging because other transit companies (JR West, JR Central et al) can license Mobile Suica assets and park it on whatever cloud service they want: AWS, Azure, NTT Data and so on. Mobile plumbing for connecting Apple Pay and Google Pay is already in place.

Mandatory Suica App update on March 14

As predicted, a new version of Suica App is coming in tandem with the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launch on March 14. Suica App users must update to v2.6 by March 18, after that date older versions can no longer login to Mobile Suica.

A new Eki-net app that supports the new eTicket service should be coming at the same time. The old Suica App Shinkansen eTicket service ends March 13.

Transit Cards on Mobile

Recent Hong Kong rumors say the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus will finally launch in March April 2020 along with the recently announced Apple Pay support for Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards. The rumors also suggest that putting China T-Union cards on Apple Pay is easier than Octopus. Is this true? Let’s take a look.

The chart below lists native transit cards on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit operators. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorOS/Digital WalletNFCProtocol
2006Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay/Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017Beijing/Shanghai TransitChinaBMAC/SPTCCApple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay/Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple Pay (announced/delayed)FMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced/delayed)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0 (?)
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0 (?)
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0 (?)
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu Keitai (announced)FFeliCa

Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC with the slowest grocery store checkout transaction speeds of the three protocols:

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong
YouTube comment lucidly explains the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada)
This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Some China transit cards used FeliCa and MIFARE protocols in the past but have been migrated to the PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-union card spec for interoperable transit cards that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc. Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS. MIFARE and PBOC 2.0 have a shorter history on mobile. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay. Initial Apple Pay support for Beijing and Shanghai transit cards was listed as beta on iOS 11.3. An NFC engineering source said the early Apple implementation was not the full PBOC 2.0 spec, apparently fixed in iOS 12.3 when the beta label was removed.

One of the biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are many China T-Union transit cards already on mobile?

Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are usually limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce system costs. The downside is that banks get a cut from transit gate transactions and transit cards for mobile are slow in coming, if at all. Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.

Putting aside the open loop fad for a moment, I think the large deployment of China T-Union cards on mobile comes down to one simple thing that has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware: all China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by Union Pay. It’s the reason why China T-Union sports a similar logo, the Union from Union Pay, and can only be recharged with a Union Pay card. It’s all one package. From Apple Support:

Here’s what you need to create a new Beijing Transit or Shanghai Transit card in Wallet to use with your iPhone:
An iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, or later, set up with Face ID, Touch ID, or a passcode
A China UnionPay debit card for Beijing, or a China UnionPay credit or debit card for Shanghai that you’ve added to Wallet

Add a Beijing or Shanghai transit card to Apple Pay

A common recharge backend cloud shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards much easier, the various transit operators don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because Union Pay is the only payment network.

China T-Union in the cards for Hong Kong Octopus?
China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a straightjacket: Union Pay is the only payment network allowed. The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the Union Pay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.

Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.

Unfortunately in the face of pressure MTR/OCL, a world leading transit platform business model and innovator, has been surprisingly slow rolling out virtual Octopus cards on digital wallets to encourage the migration from plastic cards with new kinds of mobile services. It’s a troubling turn of events because OCL has had all the necessary transit on mobile infrastructure in place to move forward quickly for some time.

The recent Hong Kong protests followed now by the coronavirus crisis are certainly slowing things down. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card. Put it this way, if OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.