Transit Cards on Mobile

Recent Hong Kong rumors say the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus will finally launch in March April May 2020 along with the recently announced Apple Pay support for Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards. The rumors also say that putting China T-Union cards on Apple Pay is easier than Octopus. Is this true? Let’s take a look.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit operators. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorOS/Digital WalletNFCProtocol
2006Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay/Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017Beijing/Shanghai TransitChinaBMAC/SPTCCApple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay/Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple Pay (announced/delayed)FMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced/delayed)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
*iOS 11 Apple Pay Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were not full spec PBOC 2.0 and listed as ‘beta’, Beijing was updated to China T-Union PBOC 3.0 with iOS 13.4.1

Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC with the slowest grocery store checkout transaction speeds of the three protocols:

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong
YouTube comment lucidly explains the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada)
This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Some China transit cards used FeliCa and MIFARE protocols in the past but have been migrated to the PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-union card spec for interoperable transit cards that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc. Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS. MIFARE has a shorter history on mobile, PBOC 2.0/3.0 is basically new. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay. Initial Apple Pay support for Beijing and Shanghai transit cards was listed as beta on iOS 11.3. The early Apple implementation was not the full PBOC 2.0/3.0 spec, apparently fixed in iOS 12.3 when the beta label was removed.

One of the biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are some 257 China T-Union transit cards already on mobile?

Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are usually limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce system costs. The downside is that banks get a cut from transit gate transactions and transit cards for mobile are slow in coming, if at all. Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.

Putting aside the open loop fad for a moment, I think the large deployment of China T-Union cards on mobile comes down to a few simple things that has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware: all China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by Union Pay. It’s the reason why China T-Union sports a similar logo, the Union from Union Pay, and can only be recharged with a Union Pay card. It’s all one package. And China T-Union cards have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. From Apple Support:

You can create a new transit card in Wallet to use with Apple Pay. The first transit card that you add to Wallet automatically becomes your Express Transit card.

Add a transit card to Apple Pay in mainland China

Eliminating plastic card transfers and a common Union Pay recharge backend cloud shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards much easier, the various transit operators don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because Union Pay is the only payment network.

China T-Union in the cards for Hong Kong Octopus?
China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a streamlined straightjacket: Union Pay is the only payment network allowed, there are far fewer service options than Suica or Octopus systems. The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the Union Pay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.

Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.

Unfortunately in the face of pressure MTR/OCL, a world leading transit platform business model and innovator, has been surprisingly slow rolling out virtual Octopus card service on digital wallets to encourage the migration from plastic cards with new kinds of mobile services. It’s a troubling turn of events because OCL has all the necessary transit on mobile infrastructure in place to move forward quickly, and has for some time.

The Hong Kong protests followed by the COVID-19 crisis have certainly slowed things down. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card. Put another way, if OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.

Coming later this year attractions that didn’t make it, and one that did

Now that Apple is in full holiday season vacation mode, here is one last look at some promised ‘coming later this year’ services that didn’t make it (and a last minute one that did).

Apple Maps 2.0 USA
The highly detailed Apple Maps 2.0 remake was first announced in mid 2018 with a rollout to be in place for the United States by the end of 2019. The West Coast and Upper East Coast made the cut but half of Mississippi, the rest of the Southeast and most of the Central US are still missing (look for the green). This is not a good sign that Apple can deliver on their promise of providing better map services in Japan before the Tokyo Olympics.

UPDATE: A few hours after posting, MacRumours reports Apple Maps 2.0 data rolling out to all Southeast and Central areas following reports from Justin O’Beirne of beta testing earlier this month. I do not see updated map details from Japan yet but it will take time to show up on devices worldwide. Apple cut it close but kudos for keeping their 2019 delivery promise with 4 days to spare.

Apple Pay Ventra
The native Chicago Ventra transit card on Apple Pay is a big deal that was announced back in March. It represents the first major native transit card for the USA on Apple Pay. The much smaller Portland transit system HOP card landed safely in Wallet in May, but Ventra is still listed as ‘coming soon.’ The fault is not with Apple but with Cubic Transportation Systems who operate transit fare systems for Ventra, New York OMNY, Transport for London (TfL) Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington DC Metro, and many more. For all of their supposed system expertise, Cubic was extremely slow rolling out Apple Pay Express Transit on TfL and has yet to deliver a single native transit card on Apple Pay or Google Pay. I hope Cubic does a better job in 2020.

Apple Pay Octopus
The Apple Pay Octopus ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ saga of 2019 was strange and ultimately sad. The Apple support side was all ready to roll with iOS 13. Octopus Cards Limited announced Apple Pay support back in July with ‘coming soon’ website artwork that was pulled when the launch was officially delayed on December 19. My take is that OCL parent Hong Kong MTR made, or was forced into, a political decision to limit services, starting with the unexplained service outage of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege. This is not a popular opinion.

Readers have reported riot damage to MTR infrastructure and suggest this might be a reason for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. I don’t buy it. Hong Kong MTR, or someone higher up, wants to limit services and control movement, not open them up. But this introduces great risk: moving people are moving money. Limit services and the flow of people, and you limit the flow of money. In this scenario Hong Kong doesn’t have a future. More than anything, I hope Hong Kong gets it’s future back in 2020.

One down, two to go on Apple Pay Express Transit 2019 ‘coming later this year’ list

Apple Pay Express Transit arrived on the Transport for London system over the weekend, some 6 months after it was announced. The other 2 remaining Apple Pay Transit cards announced for later this year are Chicago Ventra and Hong Kong Octopus. I already wrote about Octopus not launching this year. The Ventra odds seem a little better. On the bright side Ventra is run by Cubic, the same folks who operate the TfL and New York OMNY systems and already have EMV Apple Pay Express Transit support up and running. Also the Ventra Chicago Twitter account did mention Apple Pay Ventra as ‘coming later this year’ in a Nov 30 tweet.

On the not so bright side, Apple Pay Ventra is the native MIFARE transit card, the first native transit card that Cubic has ported to a digital wallet and a big complicated transit system at that. Nevertheless, Ventra is telling users that Apple Pay is coming this year. Let’s hope for a successful 2019 launch in the next few weeks.

Pour one for the iPhone X Suica NFC Problem

On the eve of new iPhones and new Apple Pay features with a growing transit card footprint, it is good to take a moment to remember the less than stellar NFC performance of the original iPhone X. The 2 year iPhone X Apple Care clock hits dead hour on November 3. I heart any iPhone X transit users with Apple Pay Octopus in Hong Kong or Apple Pay Ventra in Chicago who…

  1. discover their iPhone X NFC is wonky on transit gates
  2. discover their iPhone X Apple Care is expired

As much as my iPhone X Suica performance was a headache, my iPhone XS Suica performance is a joy. To be honest, I have not kept up with the iPhone X Suica NFC issue as most of the users who complained about having the problem have long since gotten Rev. B iPhone X replacements and moved on, or moved on to Pixel 3 JP FeliCa devices.

There are a few holdouts. Some report that iOS 12.4 has mostly eliminated transit gate errors for them, but that iPhone X NFC performance is still sluggish and wonky. Other holdouts report that iPhone X NFC is still a problem.

Most iPhone X NFC problem devices are sleeper cells, the user doesn’t live in a demanding enough NFC use environment to actively notice the issue. The iOS 13 release is due September 19, Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Ventra should be online soon after, barely a month before iPhone X Apple Care dead hour.

Getting a replacement iPhone X for unacceptable NFC performance was never easy, but it’s about to become extremely difficult, if not impossible. Good luck to all iPhone X users out there, may the NFC be with you.