The Super Suica Touchless Connection

The recent flurry of press releases and news reports for touchless walkthrough transit gates and handsfree touchless store payments sheds considerably more light on the next generation Suica architecture and FeliCa OS. The new Suica card due in spring 2021 does not have an official name. I call it Super Suica. Here’s what has been announced so far.

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018.

Handsfree touchless Mobile FeliCa payments technology based on UWB+Bluetooth on Mobile FeliCa announced by Docomo, Sony, NXP Semiconductors in December 2019. A new JR East touchless transit gate was also reported by Kyodo News around the same time and was confirmed by JR East. The new touchless payments technology uses FeliCa for transactions but uses a UWB+Bluetooth front-end instead of NFC.

No delivery date for touchless gates or touchless payments has been announced but as Junya Suzuki pointed out in his recent article, Japanese transit infrastructure investment runs in 7~8 year cycles. The Takanawa Gateway station opening and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are the kickoff for the next transit infrastructure cycle. I see 3 basic transitions for JR East and the other major transit companies.

  • Suica transition from legacy architecture to next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Super Suica staring in spring 2021.
  • FeliCa transition from NFC only front-end to incorporate UWB+Bluetooth radio technologies for handsfree touchless payments. News reports suggest deployment of JR East touchless walkthrough gates starting in 2023.
  • QR Code transition from legacy magnetic strip and other paper ticketing. Testing and evaluation is due to start at Takanawa Gateway station in 2020 with new Suica+QR Code dual reader transit gates.

Next generation Suica and Touchless Mobile FeliCa represent an interesting twist in that both require a new version of FeliCa. My take is that the new versions of FeliCa OS are one and the same, and that both Super Suica and Touchless incorporate UWB and Bluetooth protocols for transactions in addition to NFC-F.

Zero-sum Game Reset?
People are already complaining ‘oh no, not more JR East/FeliCa proprietary BS,’ but that snap judgement is way too early. Outside of the basic technologies we don’t know what standards are involved for handsfree touchless payments, but we do know that NXP is partnering with Docomo and Sony on the effort. That means MIFARE is already working on it too. JR East announced at the 2016 Tokyo NFC Forum conference that they are dedicated to working for open compatible transit payments (i.e. open ticketing between transit operators, not EMV).

Let’s take JR East at their word and assume that there is just one flavor of UWB+Bluetooth touchless, that it is fast, that it is open. In this scenario the same UWB+Bluetooth touchless front-end could be used by anybody from the large established proprietary players like EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE to open transit payment associations like Calypso. I hope this is the scenario that plays out. We don’t need a repeat of the ‘let’s make NFC A-B (Philips and Motorola) an open standard and shut NFC-F (Sony) out of the game’ nonsense that didn’t help anybody except QR Code players.

The Apple angle is interesting. Global NFC support put Apple Pay ahead of the curve. Apple putting UWB into iPhone 11 this year could be another ‘get ahead of the curve’ move so that everything is ready to roll with Super Suica on iOS 15/watchOS 8 in late 2021. I doubt anybody will see it this way, but I think touchless Mobile FeliCa and JR East plans for it are one factor in Apple’s decision.

Handsfree Touchless Smartcards?
One very important question: does this stuff work on smartcards? So far only smartphones have been mentioned in the press releases. Indications are that Super Suica is launching with new IC smartcard issue, by necessity it will have be backwards compatible with current transit card IC infrastructure.

If JR East plans to deploy touchless gates systemwide starting in 2023, Super Suica plastic transit cards must work seamlessly with the new gates. It doesn’t make any sense to issue yet another card, Super Duper Suica, to work with handsfree touchless. It also doesn’t make sense if touchless is only for smartphones. If it’s going to work in the minds of transit users and be used at all, all of it has to work perfectly, out of the gate.

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NTT Docomo rolls out 4G LTE Gigabit service

In case you missed it, try this if you are a Docomo iPhone customer: open the Docomo Speed Test app and tap the Area Map button. The previous red area has been replaced by yellow. The app needs to be updated but the red now indicates the areas with 1288Mbps~988Mbps Gigabit-class ‘Premium 4G‘ service, just in time for the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro release.

I am fortunate to live in a red 4G Gigabit speed area and my iPhone XS 4G speed is faster than my NTT East FLET’S HIKARI ‘mansion type’ VDSL service. It’s an older apartment building where telephone lines and VDSL are the only way to connect to the internet. That’s depressing to think about, but it will have to do until I can move to a place with direct fiber connection service. At least my iPhone XS 4G LTE is fast and will get faster if I upgrade to iPhone 11 Pro.

KDDI au is offering similar 4G LTE Gigabit-class carrier aggregation service for iPhone 11 customers. Be sure to check details and coverage with your carrier.

Japanese eSIM for iPhone XS/XR from IIJmio

Japanese carrier eSIM support for iPhone XS/XR has been completely absent compared to other country carriers. This is about to change finally, on July 18 IIJmio released their beta eSIM product announced earlier this month that offers 6GB of Docomo LTE/3G network data starting at ¥1,520 a month. Voice calls and SMS are not supported, only SIM free or SIM unlocked carrier devices can use the service.

The service is aimed at customers who want to use Docomo, KDDI, SoftBank carrier plans for voice and SNS, and use the IIJ eSIM for cheaper monthly data. The produce is listed as ‘beta’ but IIJ is offering kickoff campaign incentives for signing up through August 28. Hopefully this is the start of more domestic eSIM offerings from Japanese MVNO operators and carriers.

In separate but related news, KDDI announced more overseas roaming coverage for their GigSky eSIM offering.

NTT Docomo Celebrates Osaifu Keitai 15th Anniversary

It all started today, July 1, 2004, when NTT Docomo launched the iMode FeliCa mobile wallet, called Osaifu Keitai in Japanese. It was the world’s first mobile payment platform, a tremendous achievement and forerunner to the Apple Pay and Google Pay services we have today. To celebrate the anniversary Docomo has lined up a bunch of point campaigns for all the Osaifu Keitai payment networks: Mobile Suica, iD, QUICPay, WAON, nanaco, Edy. Unfortunately Apple Pay users are only eligible for iD and QUICPay (details will be available later).

Docomo also has a nifty anniversary page highlighting all the Osaifu Keitai payment networks, when you tap or click the payment icon it plays the feedback sound you hear at the register. The Suica sound is the original one we heard way back in 2006, which you don’t hear anymore. It’s a fun way to celebrate the trailblazing mobile payment platform that Docomo and Sony invented.

Dear Jennifer Bailey

Dear Jennifer,

Congratulations on the success of Apple Pay in Japan! The success is all Suica of course, but it was a very smart move and Apple Pay has transformed the Japanese payments market like the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. The market is a hot fun mess with plenty of opportunities. Here is another one.

I love coffee. So do Japanese. In Suginami City Tokyo, coffee shops, cafes and kissaten are always packed with people spending money who don’t like Starbucks. No doubt you know that Starbucks continues to stonewall Apple Pay here, but there is a nice end-around play to win that game. Did you see today’s news announcements from Docomo and Doutor that starting June 3 Docomo d POINT rewards will be given and accepted at all Doutor Coffee shops? That looks boring but believe me, it’s huge.

It’s very simple: cut a deal with Docomo and put a contactless version of the d POINT rewards card on Apple Wallet, just like PONTA. Don’t stop there. Put the Doutor prepaid card on Wallet too. After all it’s just MIFARE like the Student ID cards, and since Doutor is putting out a Dotour App for card online recharging on April 22, the backend system is in place for a Wallet version.

With those cards in Wallet, lots people who have not used Apple Pay in Japan would start using Apple Pay. Kind of like Apple Pay Suica for coffee lovers who don’t use Suica. It would be cool and cutting edge for customers to earn d POINT rewards at Dotour Coffee Shops just by paying with Apple Pay, again just like earning PONTA rewards at Lawson. But reward points for drinking coffee is the real incentive, and the payoff. I guarantee it would strengthen your hand with Starbucks in a big way, and help Docomo sell more iPhones. That would make both Docomo and Tim very happy.

Think about it. Seriously.

Love and Kisses,
Ata Distance