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.

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.

Riding 272km on 42km ICOCA fare

The ICOCA IC fare region extensions that went into effect March 13 have opened up some interesting transit possibilities. ICOCA has a 200km travel limit but the exit gate fare is calculated by the shortest route possible. YouTuber yasu who specializes in finding convoluted transit IC travel options, posted a video that details his very long transit from Kyoto to Osaka in three sections as a single trip using Apple Pay Suica.

Section 1: Kyoto to Wadayama via Fukuchiyama (Sanin and Fukuchiyama lines)

Section 2: Wadayama to Himeji on the Bantan line

Section 3: Himeji to Osaka on the Sanyo line

This is a 272.6km trip that costs ¥3,410 but ICOCA only charges the shortest possible distance of 42.8km that costs ¥570 when exiting the Osaka station gate. Yasu stayed ‘inside the gate’ the whole journey but there is an in-station gate point at Himeji station between the Bantan and Sanyo lines. Logically this is where the ICOCA system could calculate a fare but JR West doesn’t do so.

Yasu points out that this ‘over the limit’ travel is covered in section 16 of the ICOCA terms and conditions and his trip is not breaking the rules. He contacted JR West before the trip and they confirmed this is possible and not breaking the rules, but this kind of loophole can disappear in the wink of an ICOCA system update.

It’s a 40 minute video but has great scenery and JNR era diesel-electrics still in service on the Bantan line with distinctive traction motor sounds, sights and sounds that are disappearing fast, captured like an O. Winton Link recording. The food at Himeji station also looks delicious. If I was still living in the Kansai, I’d gladly spend a day traveling this route on a single ¥570 Apple Pay Suica fare. It would be a fun journey.