The Weekly #4

August 8, 2021

Pixel 6 Tensor and the secure element

After many years of rumors Google finally unveiled their custom silicon, though details won’t be known until Pixel 6 devices go on sale. Dieter Bohn wrote:

Tensor is an SoC, not a single processor. And so while it’s fair to call it Google-designed, it’s also still unclear which components are Google-made and which are licensed from others. Two things are definitely coming from Google: a mobile TPU for AI operations and a new Titan M2 chip for security. The rest, including the CPU, GPU, and 5G modem, are all still a mystery.

Ever since Pixel 3 models went on sale in Japan with Mobile FeliCa support, inbound Pixel users have been pining for the same global NFC feature that iPhone and Apple Watch have, but it hasn’t happened. Here’s why.

On the NFC hardware side everything has been ready to go on all smartphone hardware for years because NFC A-B-F support is a requirement for NFC certification. The problem has been on the SE side, the black box where all the transaction magic happens. From GlobalPlatform the SE certification organization:

A SE is a tamper-resistant platform (typically a one chip secure microcontroller) capable of securely hosting applications and their confidential and cryptographic data (for example cryptographic keys) in accordance with the rules and security requirements set by well-identified trusted authorities.

There are different form factors of SE: embedded and integrated SEs, SIM/UICC, smart microSD as well as smart cards. SEs exist in different form factors to address the requirements of different business implementations and market needs.

GlobalPlatform Introduction to Secure Elements

SE Wars
In the pre-Apple Pay mobile carrier hardware era, carriers used SE SIM or a embedded Secure Element (eSE) + carrier SIM combo that chained customers to service contracts for the privilege of using mobile payments. This is the classic Osaifu Keitai model pioneered by NTT DOCOMO: an overpriced carrier SIM contract to use mobile payments only with select carrier handsets.

This carrier lock in model is one reason why Mobile FeliCa ended up being ridiculed as ‘galapagos technology’ even though everybody else copied it. This carrier SE SIM hostage situation, i.e. the Mobile Wallet SE Wars, led Apple and Google to follow different strategies to address the problem.

The Apple Pay Way
Apple’s answer of course was Apple Pay. A unique in-house strategy of putting a GlobalPlatform certified Secure Element in Apple Silicon. Most eSE go on the NFC controller, but doing it the Apple in-house way has advantages over a NFC chip vendor bundle: control of the eSE applets and ability to update them and the Apple eSE for new protocols in iOS updates. We saw this in action with the addition of FeliCa in 2016, PBOC in 2017 and MIFARE in 2018. We are seeing it again with the addition of Ultra Wideband (UWB) Touchless in iOS 15.

The Google Pay Way
Google’s answer to the carrier owned SE problem was a convoluted evolution from Google Wallet (2011) to Android Pay (2015) and finally Google Pay (2018). Google’s first salvo was Host Card Emulation (HCE): “NFC card emulation without a hardware secure element” a virtual secure element hosted on Google’s cloud or in an app. Later on Google attempted to do the same for FeliCa with HCE-F.

The HCE strategy was quietly abandoned when Google decided to get into the hardware business and Android Pay turned into Google Pay. Now we have Google Pay running on Google Pixel with its own embedded Secure Element (eSE). With Pixel and Google Pay, Google decided they didn’t want to be the Secure Element provider for every Android OEM out there especially when the Chinese OEMS are all rolling their own eSE based digital wallet services anyway, completely ignoring HCE. Sure, HCE/HCE-F is still there in Android developer documentation but it’s a vestigial relic of the SE wars. From an industry standpoint it’s eSE or nothing now.

Google Pixel models up to now have used vendor bundled eSE + NFC controllers with the Pixel JP models using the Osaifu Keitai software stack. This makes global NFC support more complicated because Google doesn’t ‘own’ the eSE and the software stack, at least not in the Apple sense of making their own all in one solution. As we have seen, Mobile FeliCa is installed on all Pixel 5 models but the Osaifu Keitai stack only loads on JP models.

Will a Tensor SoC that contains a Titan M2 and a custom eSE solve this? It all depends on whether Google goes deep instead of cheap by stripping Google Pay of its dependency on the Osaifu Keitai stack and create their own region free support stack. If so, inbound Pixel 6 users will have the ability to add Suica and other FeliCa cards out of the box.


The PASPY organ transplant

As pointed out previously, the PASPY transit card transition from NFC to QR is not going to be easy. Not only does HIroden have to swap out the basic technology infrastructure, they also have to swap out their IT system integrator partners. The PASPY system was built and is currently managed by NEC with the last server upgrade completed in 2014. A quick look at the system map illustrates the pain points that including swapping out the NFC reader infrastructure in trolleys and buses and replacing it with QR readers with mobile connectivity, a requirement because of central processing. There will also be a lot of pain for wide area commuters because going QR means cutting the cross compatibility cord with ICOCA, Suica, etc.

The mobile connection means a mobile operator has to be involved to make it work. The likely IT system candidate here is the same one behind all the QR transit systems in Japan so far: SoftBank backed QUADRAC. The PASPY QR replacement is expected to be closed loop, similar to the QR + smartphone app closed loop system being tested by Nankai. Too bad JR West can’t come to the rescue with a localized version of the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Card, but that’s another story for another time.


To eSIM or not to eSIM

eSIMs are great in theory, unfortunately the current reality for Japanese customers is less than ideal even thought the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) is promoting them over traditional physical carrier SIMS and issued eSIM guidance. In addition to this carrier SIM locked devices will not be allowed from October. Of the big three carrier budget brands: NTT DOCOMO (ahamo), au KDDI (povo), SoftBank (LINEMO), only LINEMO and povo offer eSIM options. DOCOMO says they are thinking about it but for now ahamo is a physical SIM service because DOCOMO says eSIMS are not as secure as physical SIMS.

A recent article by Masao Sano outlined the eSIM situation in Japan and current obstacles for customers. The online signup process and device setup isn’t always smooth going and first time customers sometimes have to deal with unlocking their carrier device, APN settings, network authentication codes, profile installations and so-on. The eSIM process needs to be easier and user friendly. The good news is that unlocked carrier phones will be standard soon along with better eSIM option plans and migration setup. Once ahamo adds an eSIM option the next step will be taking it mainstream for major brand carrier contracts.


Apple Music finally sorts Japanese artist names correctly

Congratulations Naoko! You and all your fellow Japanese artists on Apple Music were finally liberated from the # sorting section and now live in 五十音 (Gojūon) splendor in iOS Music App. A very long wait though wasn’t it? Six years!

Seriously though I wonder what took Apple so long to fix most, but not all, of their Japanese music metadata mess. Not a moment too soon as the old reliable iTunes Match service seems to be on its last legs and the macOS Music app replacement for the old reliable iTunes app is completely useless for organizing a digital music collection: Apple Music and iCloud Music library have a mind of their own.

Truth be told, I had more fun collecting and listening to music on iTunes + iPod than discovering music on Apple Music + iPhone. For some strange reason, less is sometimes more.


The Weekly will be taking a summer break the weeks of August 9 and 16 and resume the week of September 1. Take care and enjoy the rest of the summer.

NTT Flet’s fails in the Covid traffic crunch

NTT FLET’S internet service has been around forever in many configurations, the latest being Flet’s Hikari ‘optical fiber’. I call it flexible fiber because NTT uses the term Hikari when they should not. My Hikari only comes into the apartment building junction box then branches into each apartment with good old cooper wire phone lines and a VDSL modem. NTT calls that Hikari, I don’t.

PPPoE/IPv4 traffic has been tapped out in Tokyo since at least 2017. When I first upgraded from PPPoE/IPv4 to IPoE/IPv6, I saw a pleasant bump in speed with none of the night time internet traffic meltdowns when using PPPoE.

I thought my problems were solved but over time IPoE/IPv6 download speed has slowed down while iPhone NTT Docomo 4G LTE speed has skyrocketed past NTT Flet’s:

A year ago Twitter user shao, who posts wonderful network and payment tech tweets with the deep tech background to back them up, noted that the Japanese Internet Provider Association was in a collective hissy fit with NTT. IPoE/IPv6 junction points to NTT main lines where tapping out and providers needed more junction points, they also wanted IPoE access pricing brought in line with PPPoE and better traffic control. NTT gave internet providers the cold shoulder with ‘we’ll consider it if you do the work.’ The result of that is NTT East/West Flet’s service is seriously slowing down in face of stay home telework, bored kids streaming content and too much online shopping.

As shao notes 4G and KDDI au Hikari nuro service are, so far, unaffected. The strange thing here is that KDDI is simply renting NTT dark fiber for nuro. So yes, NTT has the capacity, but doesn’t seem inclined to put in the effort to share it unless providers do the work, and also pay up. To be fair I think one of the problems is hinted at in a recent annual NTT financial report: a shortage of field engineers and technicians. Somehow it seems fitting that the human problem of Covid is also the human problem of slow internet speeds.

Yes, iPhone Carrier Subsidies in Japan are Officially Dead: New Docomo Data Plans

The writing has been on the wall for over a year now, and sluggish iPhone XR sales only confirmed the fact, that iPhone carrier subsidies in Japan which have defined the industry since 2008, were dying. Today’s Docomo announcement unveiled new plans that discard all the complexity of previous plans like ‘FOMA’, ‘Xi’ and ‘docomo with’ all of which disappear on May 31, with 2 simple choices:

  • Giga-Ho: ¥4,980 a month for 30GB
  • Giga-Lite: ¥1,980 a month for 1GB with other date tiers available, 3GB@3,980, 5GB@4,980, 7GB@5,980

Docomo customers can apply for the plans from the Docomo web site or a Docomo shop starting May 22, service starts June 1. There are many configurations and new options available, from home internet bundle discounts to new family data sharing. And it looks like tethering fees are gone. Depending on the configuration savings can be as large as 40% compared to previous plans.

At first glance customers will still need to do some homework via the online cost simulator (something that Japanese love to do), or visit the nearest Docomo shop to find the configuration that fits your needs while giving the best discount. This is just part 1 of the continuing saga of data plans without subsidies. At the end of the announcement Docomo said stay tuned for more. KDDI au and SoftBank should be announcing new plans soon, and we’ll get Docomo part 2 when the new iPhones come out this fall.

First eSIM Service for iPhone XS/XR Launches in Japan

iPhone XS/XR users in Japan have been wondering how long it would be before they had the opportunity to finally use the eSIM feature from a Japanese carrier. KDDI announced an eSIM service for iPhone XS/XR today for travelers going overseas. The service provider is GigSKY, one of the Apple SIM service providers in Japan, and while it is cheaper than what I used for my Docomo iPhone roaming recently, it’s still not that cheap: 30 day/5GB/5,800 JPY and 30 day/8GB/8,900 JPY. The service area covers America, Canada, Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and launches April 17. Details are on the KDDI au site.

Hopefully this is just the start of more eSIM service plans from other Japanese carriers with better pricing.