Cloud Suica and Suica region extensions announced for early 2023

JR East announced cloud based Suica and extended coverage for the Tohoku region, going online with 44 stations in early 2023 and closing some major service gaps around the same time that Mobile ICOCA is due to launch. This same cloud system is expected to drive JR East QR closed loop ticketing and MaaS Suica based services and also syncs with the Mobile ICOCA aim of delivering MaaS services in the JR West region.

You might think that JR East has installed Suica gates in every station but this is not the case: as of 2018 Suica is installed in roughly half of JR East’s 1667 stations with these station additions the first in more than 4 years. The reason is cost. Unmanned stations have simple Suica validators but the cost of hard wiring these to the Suica data center is an obstacle. Fast local processing is one of the advantages of Suica but the dedicated network backbone costs for linking and syncing with JR East servers doesn’t come cheap.

The new internet cloud based Suica backend will calculate fares centrally rather than on each gate. The trade off is slightly slower speeds with the benefit of lower installation and maintenance costs so that Suica can easily be installed anywhere. Japanese tech journalist Junya Suzuki tweeted that probably half of Suica transaction processing would remain local with half of the fare processing in Suica cloud. This means the local Suica card SF transaction is partially offloaded by the gate to a distributed closed loop fare processing network via a fast reliable internet connection. It also means that stations with heavy traffic keep fare processing on the gate.

Previously JR East had said they expect to reach 100% Suica deployment with Cloud Suica in the 2021 fiscal year (ending March 2021) and hope to sell it internationally. The program is running over a year late and the first step will be getting the new system to JR Group companies (JR West, JR Central, JR Kyushu, JR Hokkaido) before going international.

Related posts
Cloud Suica and the next generation Suica architecture
2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate Cards

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.

Is Suica ‘all-in-one’ possible?

Now that Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit cards are out, it’s time to examine the question that Yanik Magnan posed in his limitless possibility podcast: is Suica all-in-one possible? He defines it as follows: “All-in-one in my case would mean all Transit IC and local area transit members sharing the same physical card as a common container for their data, I’m assuming (maybe incorrectly?) that Suica + PASMO on the same card would be possible through whatever totra is doing.”

In my initial Super Suica coverage I outlined all-in-one possibilities beyond the Suica 2 in 1 Region card program and called it ‘Super Suica’ to capture that idea. Unfortunately, and as Yanik points out, I forgot an important aspect: Suica and sister Transit IC cards all use the same FeliCa technology but have their own data formats. That was an oversight. Nevertheless I think we agree, so I’m retiring Super Suica in favor of Yanik’s Suica ‘all-in-one’ moniker. Here is a grab bag of various pieces that hopefully add up to an quick overview, with Suica all-in-one as a platform of technologies that others can build off of, instead of a specific transit card.

FeliCa Enhancements
Since November 2020 we’ve seen a number of FeliCa enhancements: (1) FeliCa Standard SD2, (2) Mobile FeliCa Multiple Secure Element Domains that support non-FeliCa protocols and, (3) Mobile FeliCa Ultra Wideband Touchless. The most important of these right now is SD2 because it’s a real shipping product with Extended Overlap Service and Value-Limited Purse Service. TagInfo scans of the newly released totra 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate transit card reveal Extended Overlap in action. The card itself shows 2 issue numbers on the back, one from JR East who own the SF (stored fare) purse and one for the region operator who own the overall card. That JR East owns the Suica 2 in 1 card SF and float is…interesting and offers a clue as to what’s going on behind the scenes.

FeliCa Standard SD2 powered totra Suica has 2 card numbers

Float Gloat
Who owns the SF purse float, how it works on the reader side and as a business model are the big issues. Here’s an example: I suspect SD2 Extended Overlap might also be used in the new Suica-TOICA-ICOCA cross region commuter passes as those cannot be issued on current plastic and require an upgrade trip to the nearest JR station. We won’t know for sure until we get a TagInfo scan of the new physical card but let’s pretend for a bit.

Say a TOICA user purchases a cross region commuter pass from Numazu (TOICA) to Odawara (Suica) for regular non-Shinkansen transit. In this case the cross region solution is easy and acceptable to all JR companies because each transit card issuer owns the SF purse, in this case JR Central. The same applies to JR East when issuing the same commute pass route for Suica. The same scenario would likely be acceptable to all Transit IC companies, sharing a common physical card as a common container for their data, but only if the SF purse ownership was clearly defined as it is in totra Suica so it works on the reader side: this is Suica SF, this is a ICOCA SF, etc., otherwise the reader doesn’t know which one to use.

In other words, let’s 2 in 1 and all-in-one for the shared resources like points, commuter passes and special discount fares for elderly and disabled users, but the SF purse is not shared for 2 in 1 or anything else. Common data format, yes. Common shared SF purse, no. At the end of the day you can’t have a Suica and a PASMO on the same card as the reader won’t know which one to use. We’ll see if Extended Overlap and Value-Limited Purse solves this wanna have cake and eat it too Transit IC dilemma. Sony is now shipping FeliCa Standard SD2 antenna module chips for the reader side of the equation so readers will be getting smarter and evolve too. That’s how I see it for Suica all-in-one, Transit IC and mobile, a gradual evolution.

Mobile hardware barriers
On the mobile front we have a smartphone hardware barrier: the Mobile PASMO Osaifu Keitai Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, mess landed on Mobile Suica with addition of multiple Mobile Suica cards on March 21. Only Osaifu Keitai Type 1 devices can handle multiple Suica and PASMO cards.

This has implications for Mobile FeliCa features such as the Japanese Government My Number Digital Card and UWB Touchless digital car keys. Mobile FeliCa 4.0 and later on Pixel devices indicate the ability to upgrade FeliCa JAVA Card applets and even Mobile FeliCa itself. Whether Android device makers will actually use this OTA ability is a mystery. To date the standard industry practice has been if you want new features, you buy a new device.

And then there is Apple. iPhone 7 JP models that support Suica do not support PASMO, UWB is only available on iPhone 11 and later, and so on. There is no guarantee that Apple will update, say iPhone 11 models, for UWB Touchless, Mobile FeliCa My Number Digital cards or even Suica 2 in 1, if and when the format comes to Mobile Suica.

We’ll see what FeliCa Dude has to say about the all-in-one subject, hopefully in a future Reddit post. It may take a while but worth the wait.

UPDATE
I’m sticking with Super Suica. Yanik’s All-in-one take is a great name focused on the 2 in 1 card architecture that fits all of Transit IC on a single card. My Super Suica take is a wider set of developing platform initiatives. Yanik’s feedback was valuable in forcing me to review my posts and define Super Suica as a platform, I thank him for it.

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.