Super Suica announced for Aomori City Buses

Super Suica diagram

Another day, another JR East Super Suica 2 in 1 card announcement, this one for Aomori City buses due to launch in spring 2022, just about the same time as Mobile ICOCA. This is the 3rd Super Suica 2 in 1 card announcement so far:

The latest announcement is similar to earlier press releases but has some interesting new details that shed more light on what the Super Suica service will look like.

  • Local Branding: Super Suica 2 in 1 local area cards will have their own branding and reward points. I suspect local reward points can be exchanged for or plug into the JRE POINT system as well. There will also likely be special services and discounts for local area residents linked to Ny Number Card.
  • Suica benefits: Though they have different branding local 2 in 1 cards are Suica cards with all the Suica infrastructure benefits including Mobile Suica, Shinkansen eTickets, Transit IC compatibility, eMoney, etc.
  • Contactless: eliminating paper tickets and hard cash in areas without Transit IC cards in the COVID era is a good thing though credit card companies are marketing the hell out of it too. More on this in a later post.

Super Suica offers the benefits of Suica infrastructure to local transit agencies within the JR East area who don’t have the resources to launch or maintain their own Transit IC card system. Plugging those orphaned areas into the wider transit network with the same infrastructure is the sensible thing to do, I wish JR East had done this years ago. We should see more announcements in the coming months and Japanese press coverage when the first services launch in March 2022.

JR East Ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen expanding system wide

The yellow area is new

Another day, another Suica related announcement. JR East ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen service for Suica and other compatible Transit IC cards will be expanding in March 2021. It will basically cover all Shinkansen lines directly managed by JR East. Previously it only covered the Kanto region. Touch and Go differs from Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets in that Touch and Go uses the Suica balance for Shinkansen fare, eTickets do not.

The service is very simple: register Suica, PASMO, etc. at any JR East station pink recharge kiosk for Touch and Go. Then waltz through the Shinkansen gate and get on a non-reserved Shinkansen seat. A typical use case looks like the diagram below.

Touch and Go Flow
Touch and Go Flow: recharge before you go

Of course the new service area comes with a campaign: 10% JRE POINT fare reward for Touch and Go travel in the new area for the first 3 months. As I have said before, JR East is busy ramping up for Super Suica. Now that we have expanded Touch and Go Shinkansen, a larger Super Suica stored value purse is a given. Do I hear ¥30,000? ¥40,000? The latter would put Suica on par with WAON.

Suica linked My Number MaaS and JRE POINT for Off-Peak Suica Commuting

My Number Card linked with Suica for MaaS in Maebashi

JR East announced some interesting services today: Suica linking with My Number ID cards (aka Individual Number Cards) and a JRE POINT campaign for off-peak Suica commuting.

The off-peak commute campaign starts March 1 and runs for an entire year. JR East wants to encourage commuting without COVID risky crowding with off-peak commuting rewards. On my own daily commute I have noticed a sharp increase of people with the colder weather in the morning peak commute hours.

Peak-hours are 7:00~8:30 am, off-peak is defined as ‘early commute’ 6:00 am~7:00 am that earns 15 JRE POINT and ‘easy commute’ 8:30 am~9:30 am which earns 20 JRE POINT. In my case the ‘easy commute’ reward works out to about 500 JRE POINT a month. This is in addition to the regular monthly JRE POINT transit rewards. I wish I could be in the top earning ‘easy commute’ bracket but ‘early commuter’ will be my only choice. Such is life.

A second reward for non-commute plan Suica fare regardless of time or route offers a free fare in JRE POINT with 10 transits with an additional 10% of fare rewards for each additional transit. Mobile Suica earns more than plastic Suica, so think of this as a kind of ‘welcome to Suica Suica’ run up campaign.

The My Number Card linking scheme, via NFC tags, is designed to drive local MaaS services for local residents by linking age and local residence confirmation to Suica. Local transit discounts for elderly and children are the start point, the press announcement also highlights shopping discounts and local government services. It’s proof of age and local residency just by using a linked Suica. The MaaS service area is scheduled to start from December in Maebashi.

It’s an intriguing service that finally promises to deliver some of the features that My Number Card was designed to do. But in this case I think the service needs some kind of on the spot hook, like a instant cash-back PayPay kind of gimmick to get people to really use it. People like instant gratification. Looking at a monthly Suica or JRE POINT transaction list to find the rebate just isn’t sexy enough for most people to try something new.

Reader Question: what’s the point of Apple Pay My Suica?

A reader asked a very good question: what’s the point of an Apple Pay My Suica? Can’t you already migrate a normal ‘unregistered’ Suica to another device if you loose your device?

There are 3 basic Suica plastic card categories: unregistered, registered (My Suica) and commuter. PASMO and all other major Transit IC card are the same. An unregistered Suica card just spits out of the station kiosk after putting money in and you are on your way, but it cannot be replaced or re-issued if lost. Buy a new one, end of story.

With a registered My Suica card, the customer registers a name and other information on the kiosk touchscreen and if the card is lost it can be re-issued for a fee with the original stored balance intact. It’s Suica insurance. Same deal for Commuter Suica which is registered Suica with a commute plan attached.

Mobile Suica uses the same 3 category card model but Apple Pay Suica changed the game considerably. When a user transfers any flavor of plastic Suica to Apple Pay, the card is permanently linked to the user Apple ID. When a user creates a Suica card in Wallet it creates a My Suica card also attached to Apple ID. Apple Pay Suica cards also seem to be ‘ghost’ registered to Mobile Suica even when the user does not have a Mobile Suica account. Only the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica system elves really know what is going on.

The upside for Apple Pay users is that Apple Pay and Mobile Suica preserve Suica card information so the user can safely remove Suica from Wallet, re-add it, or transfer it to another device at any time. It’s free insurance without the hassle of registering a Mobile Suica account. All Suica card types are treated the same. The downside is that if you want to migrate to Android you have to delete your Mobile Suica account and refund the card, then create a new card and Mobile Suica account for Google Pay Suica. It’s the same deal going migrating the other way.

To answer the reader question regarding the point of Apple Pay My Suica, the point is this: commute plans, auto-charge, Green Car seat purchase. The point of Apple Pay Registered PASMO is similar: commute plans and auto-charge. All this is done via Suica App or PASMO App. If you don’t want those extra services, a plain unregistered Suica or PASMO is all you need.

Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop 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 may have stopped issuing Ventra branded prepaid debit cards but they have managed Ventra account services all this time. The Ventra plastic card is MIFARE DESFire EV1 which fits with the tried and true Cubic Transportation Systems management style. All of the various transit card systems they manage around the world are designed around MIFARE stored value cards: Chicago Ventra, London Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington SmarTrip, LA TAP, etc.

An Apple Pay Ventra in 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, only this time disguised as a mobile transit card with Mastercard running the card account services.

Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop transit card
Most 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. Reload/Recharge in Wallet is not supported, you have to do it in Ventra App. This really sucks for Apple Watch Ventra users. Currently only Apple Pay TAP and Apple Pay SmarTrip support Wallet recharge, interestingly those systems are closed loop.

So, we have the following pieces: open loop, Cubic system management, Mastercard managed Ventra card accounts, MIFARE for plastic cards, EMV prepaid debit for mobile digital cards with a closed reload/recharge model that limits everything from card issue and recharge to the app, oh and slow tap speed.

The end result is a centralized processing system model mishmash of open loop and closed loop parts, ‘heavy’ in every performance aspect, that pales in comparison to stored value local processing lightness of a user friendly Apple Pay Suica•PASMO with fast tap speeds that lets users do everything from recharge to card creation in Wallet without an account or app. In short Apple Pay Ventra is a bank card without the credit checks for transit use.

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. And tap speeds will be slower than ever with EMV, aka the supermarket checkout protocol.

The lesson here is that when transit agencies let banks and card companies run their 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. I’m sure the bank 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…is it going to be the same deal 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 a 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 account for Apple Pay Ventra as the EMV credit card format wasn’t designed for stored value. Just like the title says: Apple Pay Ventra is a closed open loop card.