As promised back in 2020, JR West finally launched Mobile ICOCA for Osaifu Keitai Android devices on March 22, with Apple Pay support expected later this year . If the Apple Pay PASMO rollout is anything to go by, expect Apple Pay ICOCA about 6 months after the Android launch around October, it takes time to coordinate Cupertino as Apple likes to align these things with new iOS releases, in this case iOS 17. Basic points:
Android 10 devices: the Osaifu Keitai supported devices list is limited to modern Android 10 devices that support multiple transit cards (Suica + PASMO + ICOCA) with only one card set as the default ‘Express Transit’ card.
WESTERID required: this new point system + single ID for multiple JR West online services was put in place just for Mobile ICOCA and a registered account is required for Mobile ICOCA. Similar to JRE POINT, users earn points from transit use, recharge and purchases at participating stores. WESTER POINT to Mobile ICOCA recharge is built in and self contained, more streamlined than JRE POINT app to Suica app recharge. J-WEST credit cards earn the most WESTER POINT for recharge and commute plan purchase.
Users can register 3-D Secure 2.0 credit cards for recharge in the Mobile ICOCA app but ‘some foreign issue cards’ are not supported (looking at you foreign issue VISA)
No wearables (Garmin, Fitbit, etc.) yet, Apple Watch will be first hopefully followed by WearOS devices later
No auto-charge support…a pain point, stick with plastic if you want this feature.
Mobile Commute Plans: most regular and university student commute plans are supported including JR West + Osaka Metro/Hankyu/Keihan/Nankai/Hanshin routes, but other commute plan types/routes are not. These include, FREX Shinkansen plans, HS/JHS student plans (launching on Mobile Suica and PASMO March 18), disability discount commute plans, bus and trolley routes, and routes that include the JR West Tsuruga~Ishikawa Hokuriku line that will transfer from JR West to third sector ownership in 2024. Stand alone ICOCA commuter passes for Hankyu, Keihan, Osaka Metro routes that do not include JR West lines are not supported.
Suica and PASMO together account for roughly 80% of all Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. In other words, 90% of the issued transit card market has mobile service. It will be very interesting to see how the Mobile ICOCA migration works out. I’ll update this post with details as they become available.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new transit gate alarm sound going around. It sounds like this:
Yeah, that sound. I hear it more and more these days but what does it mean? We already have the bing-bong alert sound when there’s a transit IC card error or low fare, in which case the gate says, “insufficient fare”. Unlike those alert sounds however this new one is not a new alert for transit users…it’s an alarm sound for station staff, There was also the mystery surrounding the new alarm name: rainbow. Why do they call it the rainbow alarm?
It took some digging to find the answer: 「キセル防止」”fare evasion prevention“. The Japanese word for fare evasion “kiseru” has an interesting but murky history dating from the early pre-war Showa era. And the rainbow connection? All the lights on the transit gate flash. So when station staff hear the head turning rainbow alarm they can easily see which transit gate caught somebody attempting fare evasion.
A distinctive alarm sound for fare evasion has advantages. A few years back I was inside Shinjuku station walking directly behind a gaijin gal who exited JR Shinjuku without a ticket or Suica, completely ignoring the standard bing-bong alert without breaking stride. She then entered Odakyu Shinjuku without ticket, again completely ignoring the bing-bong alert without breaking stride, walking on to the train with attitude. Two fare evasions in a row. With the rainbow alarm, and ubiquitous station video surveillance, that kind of stunt will be much harder to pull off, especially for ‘gomi gaijin’ playing dumb to break rules and get their way.
It’s time to take a look at Suica and Japanese mobile transit ticketing developments expected for 2023. The Suica transit platform and Transit IC partners will introduce some big and important new service in 2023 that will play out over the next few years. Some like Cloud Suica, were due years ago. Some, like Mobile ICOCA should have been done years ago. And some are a response to COVID which is the inflection point that has changed Japanese transit forever. There is no going back to the transit world that was 2019 due to, mostly imagined, fear. Once fear takes hold in society, it becomes a mindset and mindsets are very hard to change.
There is also the cashless factor. COVID kicked the Japanese cashless migration into high gear, but this smashing success hasn’t made life any easier in the checkout line, no thanks to QR Code payment apps like PayPay and dPoint, with people taking longer to pay than even before as they dig around for coupons and discounts codes in smartphone apps. These code payments apps also changed the consumer mindset: they don’t want plain old points, they want points that work like cash, everywhere and instantaneous, instead of being stuck in point ghettos like JRE POINT. This is exactly what the PayPay and Rakuten point economic zones deliver.
The biggest COVID business casualty has been transit, with profitable commuter passes taking the biggest hit as companies transitioned to working from home and Zoom conferences whenever possible. And while people are using transit more since mid 2022, it has not recovered enough to stabilize transit company bottom lines. It’s a tough environment with companies trying to entice people, especially workers, to ride again with transit point perks and off-peak commuter discounts.
Private (non-JR) transit companies in particular are looking to offer more flexible fare options beyond what transit IC card systems currently offer. This is created a huge opening for the SMBC group stera transit open loop system: an off the shelf package ticketing system that combines transit gate reader hardware and cloud system from QUADRAC hooked into the SMBC stera payment platform. The SMBC stera transit marketing team is hard selling flexible fares such as fare capping and open loop appeal for inbound tourism.
It’s clear that JR Group and Transit IC association partners have to innovate and change to reduce costs while keeping the great convenience and benefits of the Suica transit payment platform. However as Steve Jobs once said about focus, focus is about saying no. You can either focus on making one service work great on your platform or just okay when you’re spreading limited resources too thin on supporting too many services. Do Japanese transit companies want better Transit IC for everybody or mediocre ticketing potpourri as money and engineering resources are diverted to bolting on open loop for a limited user base?
2023 Outlook That said the main arc of Suica and Transit IC for 2023 is expansion. Suica, ICOCA, TOICA are expanding station coverage but in different ways. JR West ICOCA will expand to cover all stations in 2023 with a mix of hardwired station gates, ICOCA equipped trains and region affiliate buses. And of course there is Mobile ICOCA launching this spring. JR Central has outlined a similar strategy for TOICA but no Mobile TOICA plans so far.
JR East had opted for hardwired stations using a mobile connected Cloud Suica system for lightweight fare processing. At the same time they are expanding Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate card reach with new cards and service extensions to existing cards. With all that in mind, let’s examine the month by month launch slate.
While it’s good that Suica and Transit IC cards can offer features and services attached to the card number, the current reality is that each service comes with a separate app, separate registration process and ID/PW login. There isn’t a single sign-in service, a JR East version of Sign in with Apple ID, for easy service registration and linking. Smartphone users are already drowning in apps, I don’t see most people using the growing tangle of services unless there is an easy to use and secure single sign-in service and streamlined UI.
March March and April are traditionally busy months with new schools, new jobs, buying new commuter passes that go with them, and launching new services:
1) Mobile ICOCA launches March 22. Mobile ICOCA will be hosted in similar fashion to Mobile PASMO which is based on Mobile Suica assets and cloud infrastructure. Osaifu Keitai will launch first followed by iPhone. This is a big development. JR West is building their ICOCA system expansion in a slightly different way than Cloud Suica by using separate ICOCA tap in/out readers on local trains and stripped down, simple ICOCA (no commuter pass support) for connecting transit affiliates. One interesting trend is the decline of PiTaPa card users since Kansai area private rail companies started offering ICOCA commuter passes (see the chart at the bottom of the post).
2) Off Peak Suica Commuter Pass COVID has made it clear that the old style ‘station to station’ commuter pass is outdated and its fare model needs to be modernized to bring business users back. All transit companies have to come up with new flexible commute plans that work for different work commute styles.
After dicking around with the confusing and convoluted off peak transit JRE POINT service campaign for 2 years amid a COVID induced commuter pass crisis, JR East is trying again: the confusing ‘Off Peak Commutes Pass’. Available for Suica cards and Mobile Suica, these new passes offer a 10% discount over regular commuter passes that are rising 1.4% with the condition: they must be used outside of the designated start station peak rush time. If you enter the transit gate during the peak rush time, bam, your Suica transit is charged the standard fare. No commute plan for you.
While this is a welcome development it doesn’t far enough. Flexible fare distance capped commute plans that are not tied to specific stations would be a much better deal for occasional business users. For example it would be great for sales people if there were commute plans that combined a selection of fixed distance zones (10 km, 20 km, 50 km, etc) with a selection of fixed trips (10, 20, 30 trips, etc.).
This isn’t a technology or system problem, it’s a business model mind-set problem. JR East has the Suica system in place to take mobile ticketing to the next level. It’s time that the JR Group lead the way for all transit companies to cooperate for a seamless national mobile transit solution.
Sendai Suica (with the odeca region joining in July)
The challenge of disability fare Suica/PASMO/Transit IC is that while the card is issued by the transit operator, the disability Suica card has to be certified using the resident city issued disability ID. This authorization is why disability Suica/PASMO is limited to plastic cards for the time being, at least until Digital My Number Card is launched on Android and iPhone. Why is disability fare Suica important? Up until now Suica has been a ‘stored Fare is stored fare’ one size fits all card. Suica has to evolve to include different fare types and services to survive as a viable transit payment platform.
4) Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Commute Plans for High/Jr. High School Students Another big push away from plastic to mobile with a streamlined app process for student commuter pass certification via updated Suica and PASMO apps. Hopefully a more streamlined mobile app certification process for student passes paves the way forward for disability fare issue Mobile Suica/PASMO as well. Local governments need to help make this happen.
April ICOCA extensions close the Transit IC gap between Honshu and Kyushu for thru transit via Shinkansen and plastic ICOCA/Sugoca commuter passes starting April 1. This is similar to the Suica-TOICA-ICOCA Atami and Maibara station extensions that launched in March 2021. The final piece of the JR puzzle is integrating their systems for thru local fare transit with regular plastic and mobile cards. It’s long overdue that they eliminate this last nonsensical nuance.
May 1) Cloud Suica extensions. A big one, a new Suica fare system that powers the Tohoku region Suica extensions for Aomoi (10 stations), Morioka (18 stations), Akita (17 stations) launches May 27. As outlined the separate posts, Cloud Suica is best thought of as Suica 2.0. The card is the same but the reader side and processing system is completely new. Ideally Suica 2.0 offers the best matchup of local stored fare with internet cloud based transaction processing instead of expensive dedicated pipes to the data processing center.
Lower system costs is one objective but not the only important one. The Suica 2.0 fare processing system will also power the new QR Eki-Net Ticket service that launches in the very same Tohoku Suica region in late FY 2024 (October 2024~March 2025). We’ll found out how flexible Suica 2.0 is if JR East starts offering much more fare innovation.
It’s important to reexamine the role of Suica 2 in 1 here. We have two new Suica developments that converge in the Tohoku region: we have the Suica 2 in 1 card itself, new updated FeliCa card and OS with new Suica architecture, and we have the cloud based Suica 2.0 fare system. In other words we have a Suica 2.0 card coupled with the Suica 2.0 processing system.
July 1) Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate odeca card joins the system, the first established transit card updating to the 2 in 1 format. All 2 in 1 cards to date have been new cards. The next established non-Suica compatible transit card transitioning to Suica 2 in 1 is Nagano City Kururu card in 2025.
2) Open loop stera transit comes to Tokyo in a big way as Tokyu Railway starts tests. If it’s anything like the gradual Nankai open loop tests, a few important stations will have a few gates retrofitted with open look EMV contactless and closed loop QR Code readers. They will also surely offer a smartphone app for QR ticket purchase and display. One interesting aspect of the Tokyu Railway effort is that Tokyu were responsible for pushing, and paying for, Mobile PASMO. It would not have happened otherwise.
The rest of 2023 There will certainly be more services announcements and launches in the 2nd half of the year such as Apple Pay ICOCA and more open loop test installations.
Coming in 2024 We have Suica linked financial services coming with JRE BANK (rebranded Rakuten Bank cloud infrastructure), Yamagata region Suica extensions (21 stations) and unspecified Sendai Suica region extensions that will pretty much complete the installation of Suica on the entire JR East rail network. And of course QR Eki-Net Tickets which build on all the Cloud Suica infrastructure rolling out this year.
As always I will update this overview post as new services are announced with links to individual posts and updated guides.
One of the great things about Japanese trains is how seamlessly train travel connects nationwide. Reserve a ticket, get your seats assigned and travel to your destination anywhere in the country even on different JR company express trains and Shinkansen. This is the legacy of the JNR developed MARS system (Magnetic electronic Automatic seat Reservation System) for express train and Shinkansen seated ticket reservations that powers station ticket kiosks, travel agency systems and nationwide ticket reservation offices. MARS is the tabernacle of JR ticketing. Back in the JNR days ‘Green Window’ reservation window in stations staff knew everything inside out and got you the best connections at the best price. They still do for the most part but are quickly disappearing in favor of online reservations. MARS was designed so well that it has been difficult for JR Group to move forward to ticketless mobile apps with the same JNR era MARS-like unified vision.
But even in local regions cross company thru transit is a given even though designated local regions do not use the JR Group MARS ticketing system. There is a small catch however: you must have a ‘connecting ticket’ specifically designated for the destination on a different connecting company line. For paper tickets that is.
One great innovation of Suica, PASMO and the Transit IC standard was that it did away with the need to purchase special connecting local area tickets. Just tap and go, each company transit gate automatically calculates and deducts the stored fare (SF) from Suica. Another innovation of Suica was IC fare. IC fare is, in almost all cases, slightly cheaper for local area transit in the Tokyo region as the fare is calculated in 1¥ unit increments instead of the 10¥ increment for paper tickets, a benefit of lower cost ticketless IC fare processing. Cheaper IC fare is also encouragement to use IC cards instead of paper tickets. As of FY 2021 JR East says 95% of Tokyo area transit uses Suica/PASMO.
Nevertheless, despite Suica being around 20 years and the Transit IC standard in place for 10, paper mag strip tickets are still with us. Why? A number of reasons but the biggest one being they are essential for long distance interconnected transit. Travelers can get on a local JR West train in the Osaka region, transfer to the Shinkansen and ride to Tokyo, transfer to a JR East local train and ride to their destination with a single purchased set of paper tickets, usually with a discount when purchased far enough in advance. Can’t we already do this with Suica and the like? Yes and no.
Bad JNR Breakup The 1987 breakup of JNR had some bad repercussions that are still with us today. It came at a crucial point just as the next generation ticketing Suica smart card was in development, delaying deployment for many years. One outcome was this delay fossilized JR Group interconnecting tickets to MARS based paper ticketing.
Post breakup JR companies developed their own transit IC card systems with little regard for MARS JR Group integration, limiting coverage to high volume traffic areas where they could recoup transit IC system installation costs. This resulted in large sections of lower traffic rural lines being left off the Suica/Transit IC map with paper tickets the only option. I experience this situation whenever I travel from Tokyo to Minobu. Suica only goes to Kofu, but the Minobu line is not wired for Transit IC as the Minobu station signage makes very clear.
A transition from mag-strip paper tickets but what about MARS? When JR East unveiled their next generation transit gate prototype in late 2019 with Suica and QR Code readers but no paper ticket slot, it was clear that closed loop QR ticketing was the transition plan for retiring paper tickets. Mag-strip paper recycling costs are increasing and mechanical paper ticket transit gates are expensive to purchase (said to be 10 million JPY per unit) and maintain. Migrating to QR eliminates these costs…but it will be a long transition. The end of mag-strip paper tickets will only be happen when all JR Group companies have QR integrated with an updated MARS for ticket reservations and validation.
Filling gaps Despite all appearances, JR Group companies have been busy creating a foundation of new services that fall into basic categories:
•Extensions: (1) Closing Transit IC gaps on their respective systems with hard wired stations or readers installed on trains for tap-in/tap-out transit, (2) Extending Transit IC beyond JR Group systems with lower cost cloud based solutions or government subsidized installations for connecting transit operators. •Cross region transit between Suica-TOICA-ICOCA-SUGOCA regions (Atami, Maibara, Shimonoseki, etc.), this has started with through cross region Transit IC commuter passes, the next step is through cross region for regular cards. •Online Reservation and Ticketing: MARS integrated Eki-Net, EX/Odekake-Net that offer eTicketing for Shinkansen, Ticketless reservations for express trains and special seasonal package tickets. •Special Issue: Suica/PASMO for disabled users with discounts that replace paper passes
JR East Suica is extending to cover the entire rail network starting in the Tohoku region in May 2023 with a new lower cost cloud based Suica system (aka Super Suica Cloud), Suica has recently expanded to cover Tohoku region bus companies via the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card program that kicked off in 2020. Suica/PASMO for disabled users will also launch.
JR West Has been extending ICOCA with the final extensions coming to the Shimonoseki region in March 2023 along with the Mobile ICOCA launch.
In short QR will be a mobile only default replacement for MARS paper tickets while JR East-Central-West are extending Suica-ICOCA-TOICA to be the default mobile + physical card mode for local travel. This covers all of Honshu but we still don’t know what Transit IC expansion + QR MARS plans are in the works for the smaller, financially weaker JR Group companies: JR Kyushu, JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku.
The Eki-Net QR Super Suica Cloud Connection One of the little noticed key aspects of the JR East Eki-Net QR Ticket announcement is the initial service launch area and time: Tohoku. This is the same area where the Cloud Suica extension is launching in May 2023. Eki-Net QR starts here over a year later, between October 2024~March 2025. This new Suica system has a few tricks up the sleeve that give a clue how Cloud Suica and Eki-Net QR complement each other. Let’s start with the new Suica/PASMO cards for disabled users launching in March 2023. Fare discounts for disabled users are very complex as they are certified by the resident local ward or city. Up until now paper passbooks were manually examined at entrance or exit to verify the fare discount.
Suica/PASMO disability fare cards are the first time the discount is validated by the Suica system. Look very carefully at the valid use regions because Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards were designed to support special fares on non-JR East transit and region affiliates will support Suica/PASMO disability cards when they launch. As both Cloud Suica and QR will use the same cloud linked transit gates, it’s a given they will also share the same backend validation system.
Where does Eki-Net QR fare fit? The Eki-Net online reservation and ticketing system we use now is be the same one people will use to buy and display QR Code tickets. You can already use QR Codes to pickup paper tickets from a station kiosk, displaying the same QR Code to go through a gate is the next natural step. The essential question is which fare grouping QR tickets will reside in. Currently JR East has 2 basic fare groups:
eTicket and Ticketless (Suica / Transit IC cards) Local region fare tier rounded to 1¥ that is usually slightly cheaper, Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets with bigger discounts, Eki-Net Ticketless Express Train Reservations with bigger discounts
Paper Tickets Local region fare tier rounded to 10¥ that is usually slightly more expensive, express train and Shinkansen tickets without eTicket/Ticketless discounts, special campaign and seasonal tickets, package tours, etc., with discounts.
The JR East Eki-Net QR diagram give us an idea of how it will work for long distance, multi-stage travel in the JR East region:
As the diagram shows, the only possible MARS integration point is the Shinkansen ticket portion. The rest of the ticket is internal JR East local fare ticketing. The most interesting point is the first local transit leg from Kami-Morioka to Morioka. This is the Yamada line that does not have Suica service and is not included in the May 2023 Cloud Suica expansion. This is why no tap-in validation shown at the start point.
The logical progression is that Eki-Net QR tickets simply replace the paper ticket tier. There’s a huge variety of one-off specials and package tours that don’t fit well in the Suica eTicket/Ticketless box that would be ideal for QR treatment. We shall see but I suspect JR will want to keep some differentiation in place because NFC Suica/Transit IC ticketing works without a network connection, QR Code ticketing does not. And we all know that station network environments are the worst.
New Transit Gate Design Last but not least we have QR reader equipped transit gates that JR East will start installing in stations starting December 2022. Like the paper to QR transition, installation will see a gradual replacement of older end-of-life combo Suica + paper transit gates with new Suica+QR+paper transit gates. We may also see installment of the earlier Suica + QR prototype gates that JR East tested in 2020.
One aspect of both designs is the QR reader is placed way in front of the Suica reader, which is placed as far back as possible. This peculiar design has an important function of preventing ‘Suica Express Transit’ card clash when a user is going though the gate displaying a QR Code. JR East doesn’t want an extraneous Suica card read/write to clash with a QR read that sets Suica to ‘start transit’ mode. The gates will almost certainly automatically turn off the blue Suica reader when it detects a QR Code, but keeping the readers far apart is a good thing. We don’t want any MTA OMNY-like launch nonsense. A similar NFC/QR clash is common in Europe when the different readers are place too close.
Looking Ahead This is only a start. JR East has only announced the broad outlines of their paper to QR transition, the real transition will kickoff when other JR Group companies announce their plans which they have not done so far. One thing is for sure, the trusty old JNR MARS based mag-strip paper ticket reservation system is finally getting an upgrade for the cloud based mobile ticketing age.
Now that Google Pixel Watch Suica is here, the obvious questions are: is it global NFC or is it limited to JP models, is Suica the only JP payment service? EMV is there of course, PASMO joined Google Pay recently with clear signs that Wear OS support is also in the works. At the very least we can expect PASMO in a future Pixel Watch update, but so far there is no mention of iD, QUICPay and other Google Pay FeliCa payment services on Wear OS.
On the global NFC side, things turned out exactly as predicted (copied below from May 2022). Pixel 7 Mobile FeliCa support is the same old ‘cheap instead of deep‘ story: all models have the same NFC hardware with Mobile FeliCa loaded, but Google only fully activates it for JP models, in other words they continue to kneecap NFC on non-JP Pixel phones.
Pixel Watch lists FeliCa on the spec page for all models and regions, it is global NFC…but is kneecapped in the initial Wear OS version. The Mobile FeliCa Cloud (aka Mobile FeliCa Lite) powered backend is the same used by Garmin and Fitbit that delivers a geolocation locked subset of Mobile Suica services; you get the stored fare balance (SF) functions and little else. All worldwide models support Suica but it can only be added on registered devices physically located in Japan, that is to say FeliCa support is limited by location not the device model. While not ideal, it does provide some highly useful digital payment functionality for inbound visitors with those devices.
Instead of limiting Suica by geolocation that Garmin and (Google owned) Fitbit do, Google kneecapped Pixel Watch Suica for some unknown reason, limiting Suica to JP models as Pixel Watch help documentation makes clear. It looks like a major fuckup for an expensive smart device from a leading tech company that can and should work the same everywhere.
Fortunately Google promises a Wear OS update that removes the NFC kneecap allowing all Pixel Watch users to add Suica when in Japan, just like Garmin and Fitbit. We shall see if Google keeps their promise. Pixel Watch Suica has other limitations similar to Garmin and Fitbit: no Suica commuter plans, no Suica plastic card transfers, no Suica Green Car Seats, no Suica Day Passes, etc, but you can register Pixel Watch Suica for extra services: JRE POINT, Eki-Net, Touch and Go Shinkansen.
In short, that state of Google Pay on Pixel 7•Pixel Watch is not the Apple Pay-like overhaul for robust native global NFC across the entire Pixel family many were hoping for. If Google delivers on their promise to remove the Pixel Watch NFC kneecap, all those users can at least use Suica. It does raise the question I asked back in May, if all Pixel Watches do Suica, why not Pixel 7? Pixel 7 is perfectly capable but Google is keeping that NFC kneecap in place. And there is the glaring Google Pay gap between Pixel 7 JP models which support all contactless JP payments from Suica to iD to Edy, while Pixel Watch only supports one: Suica.
Meanwhile Apple Watch remains the only full featured global NFC Suica wearable because Apple took the time and effort to do Apple Pay right…what else is new?
I’ll update this post with Pixel FeliCa details as they become available.
Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay? (May 2022) Ever since Apple made global NFC standard on all iPhone and Apple Watch models in 2017, global NFC has become a litmus test of ultimate Apple-like user friendliness. When inbound devices can add Suica, it’s not only cool, but also necessary to get around. Garmin and Fitbit wearables do the global NFC thing, but Android remains stubbornly ‘buy a Japanese smartphone to do the Suica FeliCa thing.’
Which brings us to Pixel Watch which got a sneak peek at Google I/O 2022. The buzz on Japanese Twitter was basically: I want one, but not if it does’t have Suica support. Fair enough, I bet a lot of people are thinking that and not only in Japan. After all, Hong Kong users would love having a Pixel Watch that supports Octopus.
The good news is that Suica appears to be coming to Google Pay for Wear OS. Various Suica string have appeared in recent Google Pay APKs. This is expected: it would certainly be very awkward if Pixel Watch doesn’t support Suica when Fitbit devices do.
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