A Japanese friend once told me that when Suica first came out, young people in Tokyo sent Suica cards to hometown families to use for coming to Tokyo. But parents and grandparents sent them back saying, “we can’t use them,” even when they could use them in their local area.
What they were really saying was, ‘Suica doesn’t get us the same transit perks we do using local paper tickets or mag stripe cards.’ There has long been a huge gap between transit services available in major cities which ‘don’t work’ in one way or another for those in outlying areas.
That’s the challenge facing the Japanese transit IC card system. Being able to use a Suica or ICOCA transit card in the sticks isn’t enough, local region services must be attached to make it worthwhile for people living outside major city areas. Transit IC has to evolve if it is going to be useful in the mobile era with proliferating smartphone payment apps vying for a piece of the national transit pie.
Now that we have a clearer vision of how Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards address this problem and how they are central to JR East’s MaaS strategy, it’s time to look at evolving JR East cloud services and how they fit into that strategy. There are a number of new cloud service parts that have come on line over the past year, or are coming soon…some visible, some not.
Taken together they comprise what I call ‘Super Suica Cloud’ following my earlier definition of Super Suica: a collection of mobile focused transit and payment infrastructure services that can be shared with or incorporate other company services, or be hosted by JR East for other companies. MaaS is an elastic term that holds a lot of flashy concepts, but I think JR East is aiming for something more low-key but practical, a Japanese Multimodal MaaS if you will.
The immediate concrete end-goals are service expansion with cost reduction; elimination of duplicate or proprietary dedicated infrastructure in favor of open internet cloud technology. With that in place the next goal is tight integration of transit payment services that work everywhere but also deliver tailored services for local regions. Let’s examine the parts.
People assume that Mobile Suica does everything mobile, but basically it’s a station kiosk in the sky. Put money in for a transit card, put money in for a recharge, or a commuter pass, a day pass, and so on. Issuing, recharging and managing Suica cards on mobile devices is what Mobile Suica was built for.
As the world’s first mobile transit card service, Mobile Suica has made a lot of progress over the years expanding support to include Android, Apple Pay and wearables, but the work isn’t done until any mobile device from anywhere can add Suica. And since Mobile Suica hosts Mobile PASMO (launched in 2021) and almost certainly the forthcoming Mobile ICOCA (coming early 2023), getting those on an equally wide digital wallet footing is just as important.
As the face of all things Suica on mobile devices, the smartphone app could have many more things plugging into it, like Hong Kong’s Octopus App. So far however, JR East has chosen, wisely in my opinion, to keep it limited to basic housekeeping, breaking out ticketing and MaaS functions to separate apps.
Suica Fare Processing • JESCA Cloud
This is the traditional Suica network system centerpiece that locally processes touch transit stored fare on station gates and touch e-Money payments in stores. The station gate fare side is getting a major new expansion on May 27, 2023 with a simplified cloud based Suica transit fare network rolling out to 44 Tohoku area JR East stations. This new Cloud Suica area closely aligns with recently launched Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards.
The store payment side also has a simplified cloud based FeliCa payment network and a name: JESCA-Cloud. System details are vague but Cloud Suica transit fare and JESCA Cloud store payments appear to do the same thing: move transaction processing off local hardware and onto the cloud. Fast processing time is very important at transit gates, Suica tap times are the fastest out there. Those familiar with the Suica system say Cloud Suica will spilt it 50% local processing / 50% cloud processing. Dumber terminals, smarter cloud that still offers great Suica service…we hope.
One difference Cloud Suica has from a similar effort by JR West for ICOCA, is that Cloud Suica supports all the standard Suica features like commuter passes that cloud ICOCA does not. An interesting side note is that JR East hosts the processing for JR Central’s TOICA transit card network, they can certainly put the new Cloud Suica backend to good use expanding TOICA coverage in rural lines like the Minobu line.
Comb through recent JR East press releases and you’ll find 3 service announcements built around ID PORT, a “cloud based ID verification solution” from JREM (JR EAST MECHATRONICS CO., LTD), the company that builds Suica infrastructure.
- Maebashi City TOPIC MaaS service (November 2020): Local MaaS discount services provided by TOPIC that use Suica with My Number card address and age to verify eligibility:
- Suica Smart-Lock (December 2021): registered Suica card access a variety of access services provided by ALLIGATE:
- Suica bicycle parking service (February 2022): Suica commuter pass users can register for bicycle parking provided by Tokaigiken CyclunePedia:
- Mamorail (March 2020): a notification service for parents or caregivers, the first service based on ID-PORT. A registered Suica or PASMO (child) triggers a email notification when tapped at the transit gate with station and time info emailed to the parent’s/caregiver’s device.
All of the announcements have 3 components: a transit card (Suica), ID-PORT, 3rd party services attached to Suica (or PASMO) using ID-PORT as the system glue. Most of these are either in testing or ‘coming soon’. What is ID-PORT?
ID-PORT is explained on the JREM site, but the first public mention in an NTT Data PDF document from November 2020 is more revealing: “The Open MaaS Platform and supporting Multimodal MaaS”. The JR East Suica MaaS strategy is outlined with various scenarios that indicate ID-PORT is the JREM side with MaaS services on the NTT Data side. In other words a co-venture.
The job of ID-PORT is that it acts as the middle man ID verification glue linking a registered Suica (or similar Transit IC card) with various 3rd party services such as special ticketing, access and discounts.
The interesting thing about the ID-PORT and NTT Data MaaS platform reveal is that the timing coincides with Sony’s release of FeliCa Standard SD2, the next generation FeliCa architecture used for Suica 2 in 1 cards. One of the little discussed new SD2 features is ‘FeliCa Secure ID’. Here is Sony’s diagram of how it works.
Look familiar? Yep, ID-PORT sure looks like FeliCa Secure ID in action. The JREM ID-PORT page is more rounded out, incorporating non-FeliCa ID verification methods like QR and bio-authentication and many different services. ID-PORT has already been added to JESCA-Cloud and CardNet so that linked services are widely available on store payment terminals, not just Suica transit gates. In sum it represents MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action with ID-PORT at the center.
MaaS and Account Based Ticketing in action
MaaS and Account Based Ticketing are the new hotness now that people realize open-loop doesn’t solve everything as banks and card companies want us to believe. Fare Payments Platform provider Masabi explains it this way:
Account Based Ticketing (ABT) shifts the fare collection system from being ‘card centric’, meaning the ticket holds the journey information and right to travel, and moves this to the back office. Moving the ticket information to the back office holds a number of benefits. It means passengers no longer need to buy a ticket or understand fares to travel and instead they use a secure token, typically either a contactless bank card, mobile phone or smartcard.
In this scenario FeliCa Secure ID is a secure token, ID-PORT is the secure token platform using the secure token to link ticketing and services together. That sounds nice but when will we see it in action? I think we already are.
Eki-Net Account Based Ticketing
As explained above, ABT attaches tickets from the cloud to a secure token, in this case Suica. By this definition Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets represent JR East’s first step into ABT ticketing. Eki-Net uses registered accounts and credit cards purchase and attach eTickets to Suica. These eTickets do not use Suica prepaid stored fare nor is any eTicket information written to the Suica card, the eTicket system uses Suica as a secure token. JR Central smart EX is a similar ABT service and let’s not forget the web-only multi-lingual JR-East Train Reservation service that provides some ABT ticketing for inbound visitors.
Will JR East ABT implement the ‘no longer need to buy a ticket’ part of the Masabi ABT vision? I doubt it. Shinkansen eTickets are much lower ABT hurdle: lower passenger volume on far fewer transit gates than regular Suica gates. The complexity of interlocking non-Shinkansen Japanese transit systems and the vast array of fare schedules, such as higher paper fares vs cheaper IC fares, don’t easily straitjacket into an open-loop or ABT fare box, and it doesn’t fit the JR East business model.
Suica 2 in 1 region extras
There are services besides ticketing attached to a ‘secure token’ Suica. One of the important things easy to miss in the Suica 2 in 1 rollout are extra region features not available in regular Suica. Disability Suica cards for example. These are finally due to launch on Suica and PASMO cards in October 2022, but disability Suica 2 in 1 cards are already available in region affiliates.
There are also region affiliate transit points, one of the services that ID-PORT is advertising for JR East MaaS. Transit points all ‘just work’ automatically the same way. Points are earned from recharge and transit use and automatically used as transit fare. The user doesn’t do anything except tap the bus card reader. No registration, no setup. I wish JRE POINT had an option to work this way.
Transit points mimic the scheme of old regional transit mag strip card like Nishitetsu that gave ¥1,100 with a ¥1,000 recharge. Those features were popular (automatic simplicity in action again). PayPay used a similar strategy to quickly build a large customer base but pissed everybody off later as they got big and started changing bonus rate returns like used underwear. That won’t happen with Suica 2 in 1 cards as region transit points are locked in by local government subsidies to the region affiliates.
Streamlined simplicity, integration, regionality
Despite the la-la-land promise of MaaS and Account Based Ticketing, the ‘just works’ angle is crucial for people to actually use it. One of the current problems with Mobile Suica, Eki-Net, JRE POINT and the MaaS services JR East advertises is that is each service is a separate app + registration + attach cards process. This needs to be streamlined into a single simple JR East sign-on service option like Sign in with Apple that works across multiple services. I suspect ID-PORT is the glue between Mobile Suica and JRE POINT that keeps those registered services automatically linked even if the Suica ID number changes. A good sign because the JR East cloud needs a lot dynamic linking.
There is also the larger problem of integration outside of JR East, such as the current state of multiple online ticketing services; Eki-Net for JR East, EX for JR Central, Odekake-net for JR West, and so on. It would bet great to have a common app that plugs into every online ticketing service. At the very least JR Group companies need to integrate eTicketing the same way they have always integrated paper ticketing for one stop service in their own apps.
The bigger question is do Super Suica Cloud parts (ID-PORT / Mobile Suica / Cloud Suica) scale beyond JR East to include other JR Group companies (JR West, JR Central, etc.) and potential region affiliates nationwide? If increased services with reduced costs is their MaaS goal, JR East needs to step up to the plate and share. Infrastructure sharing with backend integration is the only way forward for all. Japanese transit has always excelled at physical interconnection, the cloud service side needs the same level of interconnectedness.
There are cultural angles too. Japanese have a passion for hunting down local perks, bargains and discounts. People complain about Eki-Net (deservedly) but they sure scramble and swamp the system getting those time limited discount eTickets like crazy pre-COVID era Black Friday midnight Christmas shopper crowds rushing into the store.
There is also the traditional cultural value of promoting local economies. As the saying goes, cities are only healthy in the long term when local economies are healthy too. If JR East is really serious about promoting regional MaaS, they’ve got to aggressively offer linked services that clearly promote regions. There are many region programs that visitors are simply not aware of. JR East can do a lot simply linking them to discount coupons, limited offer eTickets and such that appeal to the bargain hunter Japanese mind. The key is being creative and nimble like QR payment players.
The JR East MaaS region affiliate strategy was conceived long before the COVID crisis, yet COVID also presents a golden opportunity to invest in regions and promote working remotely. The world has changed and transit has to change too, the biggest risk is doing nothing, staying with the status quo. The emerging Japanese MaaS vision is unique in that Japan has a golden opportunity of leveraging the national Transit IC card standard into something new, taking it into the next era…if old rivalries and sectarian interests don’t get in the way and blow it, that is. Either way the next few years will be a very interesting time for Japanese transit.