Eki-Net getting reboot with multilingual support

Well, finally. JR East Eki-Net is getting the makeover I complained about when Shinkansen eTicket service and the mobile app launched just a year ago. On June 27 Eki-Net gets a badly needed re-boot with multi-lingual support, JRE POINT support, more Shinkansen eTicket discounts, inbound discount ticket support, a new UI and more. Here’s a quick look.

JRE POINT Integration
There are so many goodies in the update it’s hard to find a starting place. For many people the integration of JRE POINT is big, it replaces the old separate Eki-Net point system and greatly expands the usefulness of JRE POINT with reward points with ticket purchases and point exchanges for eTickets, upgrades, etc.

Cloud attached ticketing
JR East migrated Mobile Suica Shinkansen tickets to the new eTicket service in 2020 that uses the same Transit IC card number attachment scheme of smartEX. JR East also uses it to attach inbound discount ticketing and passes to Welcome Suica. Expect more Eki-Net domestic discount ticketing and pass options for purchase and attachment to any registered Transit IC card. Drawbacks that I see: (1) yet another account and credit card registration process in a long cluttered line of separate JR East account services (Suica App, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, etc.), (2) Outside of Suica App there is no Apple Pay in-app support for ticket purchases, (3) As always, if your Apple Pay Suica ID number changes you have to re-register it.

QR Code for group ticket pickup
This is a handy feature for group or family travel. Mom can buy tickets online, mail the QR code to the kids, kids pickup the tickets at the station kiosk and travel home for college breaks, etc. At least that’s the idea when we all start traveling again, whenever that is. Seriously though I think this will be convenient and greatly appreciated.

Multilingual and JR East Train Reservation support
English, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, French, German, Spanish, Thai, Indonesian are the supported languages. Inbound discount tickets and passes can already be purchased and attached to Welcome Suica and Suica and it appears that more options are on the way. The press release is short on details but it looks like most JR East Train Reservation functions will be migrating to Eki-Net (note the graphic shows making reservations via the desktop, not with an mobile app). And if Eki-Net is going multilingual, Suica App is close behind.

UI Improvements
One of my biggest grips was the funhouse horror of using Eki-Net desktop. So many options, so poorly arranged and hidden. The current mobile browser Eki-Net is already better and it’s going to get better still with improved eTicket reservations, seat maps, ticket price comparisons, etc. The Eki-Net app is getting improvements too but I suspect the app functions will remain limited to Shinkansen eTickets and Express Train ticketless seat reservations.

There is lots more to dig into when time allows. I’ll be very interested to see the online reaction to Eki-Net discounts and reward point schedules posted at the end of the press release. Japanese customers are ruthlessly efficient at mining the good values and dumping on the junk. This is just the first pass and there will be much more as June approaches. Eki-Net will be down from June 26 20:00~ June 27 5:00 for the big refresh. Expect launch day snags and delays like the recent Mobile Suica refresh. The only thing I don’t look forward to: updating JR POINT Guide for the new point exchange functions.

The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.

What’s next for PiTaPa?

Now that Nankai Railway Visa Touch and QR Code transit tests have started (April 2), it’s helpful to take a look at Surutto Kansai, the association of Kansai area non-JR transit companies that issue and operate PiTaPa. I covered PiTaPa problems previously but in addition to the Nakai Visa Touch and QR tests, there have been a few other developments among PiTaPa group members:

  • Nankai Visa Touch and QR Code Transit: the Nakai, VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd venture started in April for Visa Touch and Nankai Digital Touch QR, QR tickets are purchased and used via the Nakai App and can only be purchased with Visa brand credit cards.
  • Osaka Metro ICOCA: Osaka Metro started selling ICOCA commuter passes and regular cards from November available at all station kiosks. They are the last major PiTaPa member to add ICOCA commuter passes, other major members (Keihan, Hankyu, Hanshin, etc.) added them years ago and have finally retired mag-strip commuter passes. One clarification regarding TOICA: it’s sold at Shin-Osaka station by JR West not Osaka Metro. An interesting aside is that when you use TOICA on Osaka Metro the system recognizes it as ICOCA. In a separate development Osaka Metro wants to implement face recognition transit gates for the 2025 Osaka Expo that dump cards altogether.
  • Keihan ICOCA: Started offering ICOCA Points at the end of 2020 (discount fares for repeat transits in the same month).

In the Transit IC card 2020 ranking by issue/holder numbers PiTaPa was 6th at 3.3 million cards with the slowest growth. It will likely drop to 7th place in 2021.

Suica, PASMO and ICOCA represent 90% of transit IC card issue

Nankai Open Loop Tests
As expected the Visa Touch and QR gates are limited to certain stations and exits. From the on-site media presentation pictures it’s clear that Nanaki is doing open loop transit gates the right way by keeping EMV/ QR only gates separate and off to the side wherever possible (bolt-on jobs are used in narrow areas). If there is one thing we have seen these past few years it’s that all-in-one gates with multi-protocol readers are slow and error prone. They just doesn’t work well for transit.

Target users are inbound travelers from Kansai International airport and plastic contactless Visa brand cards as it does not support Apple Pay Express Transit or similar services on Google Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. The inbound angle is a tough sell in the travel restricted COVID era now that Kansai area hotels are closing and laying off staff. A few interesting inbound points: Mainland China visitors use Union Pay not Visa, QR tickets have to be bought with a Visa card, and Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop.

Fellow transit otaku in Osaka run loops around the Visa Touch open loop gate at Nankai Namba station
Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop

Taken altogether it’s mayhem. As FeliCa Dude says in his tweet, Surutto Kansai is done for. The interesting thing is that PiTaPa is a very similar to the digital Opal Mastercard debit with specific merchants allowed scheme: a closed loop credit card account instead of the closed loop digital Opal Mastercard debit account. Where PiTaPa failed was that Surutto never provided a plain old prepaid transit card option so that users could buy a commuter or regular one for cash and recharge it at any station kiosk. Opal of course still sells the good old Opal MIFARE prepaid card and they would be smart to keep it around. There will always be a need for cash based transit cards.

Why can’t Surutto Kansai to come up with this simple solution for PiTaPa? In a word, SMBC bank group. They are behind the PiTaPa card creation, and now they are pushing Visa Touch transit. It’s an unfortunate and awkward situation: transit companies forced to issue and use an ‘outside’ transit card like ICOCA instead of their ‘in-house’ PiTaPa brand. I suspect the impasse will continue until SMBC gives in and let Surutto create a prepaid card and own the float, or the major Surutto Kansai members stage a real revolt. Until something gives Mobile PiTaPa will be impossible. The pressure to do something will only grow as the Mobile ICOCA 2023 launch approaches.

A great reality check

I was pleasantly surprised to find some hits coming from a website called limitless possibility, followed the link and discovered a great podcast by Luc-Olivier Dumais-Blais and Yanik Magnan on Japanese transit IC cards, Suica 2 in 1, the new features of FeliCa Standard SD2, Ultra Wideband Touchless and more…things I’ve been writing about for a while that never get any traffic.

Yanik does a much better job of summarizing the transit technology landscape than my messy collection of posts. I wholeheartedly agree that UWB Touchless is the perfect opportunity for Japanese Transit IC members to put aside political differences and merge, or at least ‘harmonize’ their data formats for a real all in one Super Suica. We shall see. There are things coming down the pike such as multi-secure element domain/multi-protocol Mobile FeliCa that might have transit implications. And I thank Yanik for his constructive criticism of my ‘Super Suica’ coverage. It’s very helpful and rare that anybody takes the time these days.

Extra bonus: their discussion of the Japan QR Code payment mess and a sendup of PayPay ‘gamification’ campaigns using the Canadian Tim Hortons roll up the rim thing is hilarious and spot on.

Japan Cashless 2021: the Wireless Android NFC Reader Suck Index

You too can have the whole transaction world in your hands with the Android based Square Terminal for just ¥46,980

Now that contactless is everywhere, wireless contactless readers have become very fashionable and popular. Nobody wants wires or checkout lines. All of these systems are built around an Android based reading device connected to the internet payment service via Bluetooth, WiFi or 4G with a main terminal, an iPad or a laptop running payment network software. Convenient though they may be, compared with hard wired NFC reader performance they all suck with different levels of suckiness:

  1. stera: this lovely little ‘NFC antenna under the screen’ piece of shit from SMBC, GMO and Visa Japan is so slow that checkout staff put their hand over the stera screen/reader to keep customers waiting until the device is ready to go. This is followed by the instruction ‘don’t move your device until the reader beeps.’ It’s a 2~4 second wait until it beeps. This is 2014 era ‘you’re holding it wrong’ garbage nonsense. I teased one store manager about the hard wired JREM FeliCa readers that were swapped out with stera, “Those were too fast,” he said. Too fast?!
  2. PAYGATE: Another payment provider associated with GMO, slightly faster than stera but still slow, PAYGATE does’t like Apple Pay Suica•PASMO Express Transit very much. Have of the time it ignores it altogether forcing customers into the 2016 era ‘manually bring up Apple Pay Suica’ authenticate and pay maneuver. Another ‘you’re holding/doing it wrong,’ when the fault is on the checkout system side. Passé and totally unnecessary.
  3. AirPay: It’s weird that the cheap AirPay hardware performs better than PAYGATE or stera, it’s even weirder that AirPay performs better than Rakuten Pay which uses the very same reader but is stera shitshow slow.
  4. Square Terminal has gotten lots of media attention in Japan. Too early to experience it in the field yet but I’m not hopeful. Square Terminal is Android based after all and the NCF antenna under the screen design is the worst performing reader design out there. As one Brazilian reader wrote: “I just don’t like the ones running Android because at least here the software is less reliable and I managed to crash a few one by just taping my phone.”

Yep, that observation matches my experience. Payment network providers need better Android readers, the current crop is too slow getting the payment transaction ready to tap. In this era of endless subcontractor layers in the development process, creating a fast reliable Android based NFC wireless reader might be a tall order, if not impossible. The all over the place wireless NFC reader experience certainly doesn’t boast well for open loop advocates.

UPDATE
I ran across another crappy reader experience (above) and retweeted it. A reader had some questions about it, answered here by an anonymous expert. It basically comes down to poorly executed reader polling or not following Sony polling recommendations for FeliCa cards. This is what is happening in the above retweet. It is also what is going on with PAYGATE Station readers, half of the time the proper code hasn’t loaded correctly although this issue seems to be fixed in new PAYGATE Station checkout installations. Which brings us to the point I was trying to make: these performance issues can be fixed with reader firmware updates or transaction system software updates, but never are.

Wildcard polling involves the reader making a request for system code 0xFFFF and expecting the card/device to list all the system codes that it supports. Wildcard polling won’t work on an Apple Pay device in Express Transit mode – instead, the system code must be explicitly polled for (0x0003 for CJRC, 0x8008 for Octopus). You can cause Suica/Octopus to be automatically selected by sending SENSF_REQ (Polling command, 06) for those services explicitly.

I have verified that doing so with Apple Pay will cause the emulated card to be switched out as appropriate – the IDm value will also change, since Apple Pay emulates each card separately, instead of with a common IDm as with Osaifu Keitai. If you read the Sony documentation, you will see that developers are cautioned to also poll for the specific service codes they want to access if there’s no response to a wildcard poll.

Perhaps your reader doesn’t do this, but it’s fairly big omission…it should be doing explicit polling. Simply polling for service code 0x0003 should wake up Suica if selected as an Express Transit candidate, even if you don’t send any other commands. I’ve verified this with an RC-S380 reader and NFCPay.