Doutor Coffee Shops added code payment options recently. The sticker next to the reader says all that you need to know: please have your payment app ready before paying. The downfall of code payments is always the network connection. Maybe network connection is weak, or tapped out, or whatever. Last week I was grocery shopping at a basement store location and noticed customers running from checkout to the bottom of the stairs, tapping their smartphone, then running back to the checkout. Bad network area.
This is all too common and a real pain now that every store chain and their dog has a rewards app. Most checkout goes like this: the customer pulls up the store app for discounts and reward points, then pulls up PayPay, dBarai, Line or any other popular code payment, and if the network gods are benevolent, finally pays. NFC was supposed to save us from slow plastic cards and paper coupon checkout, but in the digital wallet age we’re slow if not slower because the store location is in a crappy network area, inside a building with thick earthquake proofed concrete walls. Welcome to code payments in the real world 101.
The new features that make up 2 in 1 Suica are called many things. JR East calls it ‘Next Generation Suica’ and ‘2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card’. Yanik Mangan came up with a great ‘All-in-one Suica’ moniker in his limitless possibilities podcast. I call it, and will continue to call it, Super Suica because I see wider Suica platform initiatives built off the new FeliCa OS features used for 2 in 1 • next generation Suica. It’s a looser, fuzzier platform evolution definition compared to Yanik’s tighter all-in-one card solution focused one.
That doesn’t mean that Super Suica or all-in-one Suica will ever happen they way we envision it, but at least we have some convenient handles to discuss and categorize ongoing developments until something official comes along.
This is a list of announcements, launches and posts related to Super Suica as a platform. Announcements are italic with links to JR Group PR releases, launches are bold, color classifications are as follows:
🟩= Suica cards and Transit IC region extensions 🟧= Mobile FeliCa, Mobile Suica + derivations (Mobile PASMO, Mobile ICOCA) 🟥= FeliCa Standard SD2• New FeliCa OS 🟦= Cloud Suica and cloud account services
🟩🟥Next Generation Suica cards A new card for integrating Transit IC and region cards in new ways focusing on Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit cards and FeliCa Standard SD2 • FeliCa OS as the core development. JR Cross Region Commuter Passes included as I suspect they also use SD2 Extended Overlap and represent a step towards cross region through transit for Transit IC.
JR East announced cloud based Suica and extended coverage for the Tohoku region, going online with 44 stations in early 2023 and closing some major service gaps around the same time that Mobile ICOCA is due to launch. This same cloud system is expected to drive JR East QR closed loop ticketing and MaaS Suica based services and also syncs with the Mobile ICOCA aim of delivering MaaS services in the JR West region.
You might think that JR East has installed Suica gates in every station but this is not the case: as of 2018 Suica is installed in roughly half of JR East’s 1667 stations with these station additions the first in more than 4 years. The reason is cost. Unmanned stations have simple Suica validators but the cost of hard wiring these to the Suica data center is an obstacle. Fast local processing is one of the advantages of Suica but the dedicated network backbone costs for linking and syncing with JR East servers doesn’t come cheap.
The new internet cloud based Suica backend will calculate fares centrally rather than on each gate. The trade off is slightly slower speeds with the benefit of lower installation and maintenance costs so that Suica can easily be installed anywhere. Japanese tech journalist Junya Suzuki tweeted that probably half of Suica transaction processing would remain local with half of the fare processing in Suica cloud. This means the local Suica card SF transaction is partially offloaded by the gate to a distributed closed loop fare processing network via a fast reliable internet connection. It also means that stations with heavy traffic keep fare processing on the gate.
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.
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.
Nankai Visa Touch and QR Code Transit: the Nakai, VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd venture started in April for Visa Touch and Nankai Digital Touch QR, QR tickets are purchased and used via the Nakai App and can only be purchased with Visa brand credit cards.
Osaka Metro ICOCA: Osaka Metro started selling ICOCA commuter passes and regular cards from November available at all station kiosks. They are the last major PiTaPa member to add ICOCA commuter passes, other major members (Keihan, Hankyu, Hanshin, etc.) added them years ago and have finally retired mag-strip commuter passes. One clarification regarding TOICA: it’s sold at Shin-Osaka station by JR West not Osaka Metro. An interesting aside is that when you use TOICA on Osaka Metro the system recognizes it as ICOCA. In a separate development Osaka Metro wants to implement face recognition transit gates for the 2025 Osaka Expo that dump cards altogether.
Keihan ICOCA: Started offering ICOCA Points at the end of 2020 (discount fares for repeat transits in the same month).
In the Transit IC card 2020 ranking by issue/holder numbers PiTaPa was 6th at 3.3 million cards with the slowest growth. It will likely drop to 7th place in 2021.
Nankai Open Loop Tests As expected the Visa Touch and QR gates are limited to certain stations and exits. From the on-site media presentation pictures it’s clear that Nanaki is doing open loop transit gates the right way by keeping EMV/ QR only gates separate and off to the side wherever possible (bolt-on jobs are used in narrow areas). If there is one thing we have seen these past few years it’s that all-in-one gates with multi-protocol readers are slow and error prone. They just doesn’t work well for transit.
Target users are inbound travelers from Kansai International airport and plastic contactless Visa brand cards as it does not support Apple Pay Express Transit or similar services on Google Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. The inbound angle is a tough sell in the travel restricted COVID era now that Kansai area hotels are closing and laying off staff. A few interesting inbound points: Mainland China visitors use Union Pay not Visa, QR tickets have to be bought with a Visa card, and Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop.
Taken altogether it’s mayhem. As FeliCa Dude says in his tweet, Surutto Kansai is done for. The interesting thing is that PiTaPa is a very similar to the digital Opal Mastercard debit with specific merchants allowed scheme: a closed loop credit card account instead of the closed loop digital Opal Mastercard debit account. Where PiTaPa failed was that Surutto never provided a plain old prepaid transit card option so that users could buy a commuter or regular one for cash and recharge it at any station kiosk. Opal of course still sells the good old Opal MIFARE prepaid card and they would be smart to keep it around. There will always be a need for cash based transit cards.
Why can’t Surutto Kansai to come up with this simple solution for PiTaPa? In a word, SMBC bank group. They are behind the PiTaPa card creation, and now they are pushing Visa Touch transit. It’s an unfortunate and awkward situation: transit companies forced to issue and use an ‘outside’ transit card like ICOCA instead of their ‘in-house’ PiTaPa brand. I suspect the impasse will continue until SMBC gives in and let Surutto create a prepaid card and own the float, or the major Surutto Kansai members stage a real revolt. Until something gives Mobile PiTaPa will be impossible. The pressure to do something will only grow as the Mobile ICOCA 2023 launch approaches.