Contactless Payment Turf Wars: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards

  1. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms
  2. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls
  3. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Why Oyster is missing from mobile
  4. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Tapping the potential of TAP
  5. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Apple Card and the Prepaid Innovation of Apple Pay Suica
  6. >Contactless Payment Turf Wars: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards

Prepaid transit smart cards are micro bank accounts on a card. What started as plastic in the mid 1990’s first transitioned to the cloud based mobile digital card era with Mobile Suica in 2006. Transit cards on mobile digital wallets are much more powerful and malleable than their plastic forebears, and occupy a coveted position in the mobile payments market. Credit card companies and banks spend enormous resources and effort to capture this transit fare business.

Background
Many smart cards use FeliCa and MIFARE. The technology has been on the market since 1994 and one of the reasons for platform popularity and longevity are the rich application development environments they offer (Calypso is also popular but limited to transit applications).

Developers can design a card architecture as ‘smart’ (like Suica) or as ‘dumb’ (like iD) but they are all smart cards because they contain an IC chip. In Japan FeliCa powers not only company ID cards, but also transit cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.), bank payment cards (iD, QUICPay) and rechargeable prepaid eMoney cards that anybody can buy and recharge at convenience stores (WAON, nanaco, Edy). Mobile FeliCa has been in place since 2004.

Smart/Dumb card architecture depends on use case, system processing cost efficiency and need. In a transit fare system, a dumb card use case is slower centralized processing, like waiting at the store checkout for card verification to clear. A transit smart card use case is instant locally processed stored value to keep people moving through the gates because centralized processing isn’t up to the task. This is why transit cards have used the stored value local processing model…until now.

Open Loop 1.0
EMV contactless credit cards arrived on the payments scene starting in 2007 but uptake was slow. Since EMV contactless uses the same NFC A as MIFARE based transit cards, the big EMVCo members (VISA, Mastercard, American Express) came up with a great marketing idea: use EMV contactless credit cards as a transit card. Thus EMV open loop transit was born.

EMV Open Loop 1.0 transit that debuted on Transport for London (TfL) Oyster system in 2014 filled mutual needs for TfL and bank card companies. Despite the success of Oyster, TfL wanted to reduce plastic card issue and management costs:

The current Oyster system, though very popular, is expensive and complex to administer. Contactless bank cards use existing technology, responsibility for issuing cards would lie with the banks rather than TfL, and the operating costs should be lower.

The Future of Ticketing London Assembly (2011)

In 2017 there was a push to nudge people away from their Oyster cards and towards contactless. One announcement rang out all over London’s tube stations: Why not use your contactless bank card today? Never top up again, and it’s the same fare as Oyster.

How Long Does The Oyster Card Have Left? Londonist (2018)

Using bank cards in place of MIFARE Oyster cards accomplished that and because MIFARE was late to the mobile party TfL management decided decided their mobile strategy would be Apple Pay and Android Pay EMV card support. Meanwhile the bank card companies captured transaction fees from mundane transit fares at the gate, got the benefit of using the float instead of TfL, and got people into the habit of using credit cards for tiny purchase amounts. Our parents thought buying coffee with a credit card instead of small change was ridiculous because credit cards were reserved for ‘serious purchases’. Not anymore.

TfL Open Loop was judged a big success and got rave reviews from tech journalists around the world who hailed it as the future of transit ticketing: time to dump those proprietary transit smart cards and go all in with ‘open standard’ EMV open loop if you want the latest and greatest transit fare system. This gave transit agencies and the governments that run them the wrong idea that EMV is a cure all transit fare system solution.

1.0 shortcomings
The problem is that EMV is not an open standard, it is owned and managed by the proprietary EMVCo that is wholly owned by the major credit card companies. EMV is a ‘one size fits all’ payments technology created for the needs of credit card companies and banks. It was never designed as a transit fare solution and will never evolve to incorporate transit needs. Experts agree:

A universal truth is that each transport market is highly unique. While EMV may be the best solution for some, the reality is that a standardized deployment of this model is not best suited to everyone.

Transit systems shouldn’t confuse open loop pay with EMV

The U.S. has been a tough market for transit agencies to deliver successful open-loop systems into, as banks have not been in step with these ambitions.

Is now the time for open-loop transit in the United States?

There is no escaping the basic reality that EMV is a slow dumb smart card. It works well for what it was designed for: store purchases where card transaction latency is not a problem while the checkout terminal communicates with the bank system that has your account information.

Transit fare systems don’t have your bank account information on file, and there are limits with what the backend transit fare system can do when an anonymous bank card number appears on gate reader where long transaction latency is unacceptable. There are tradeoffs: the card gets verified but the transit bill gets settled long after the transit. This is why EMV open loop 1.0 only works for simple or flat fare structures. The result was a 2 layer fare system on London Oyster, Sydney Opal and Chicago Ventra:

  • Plastic and digital EMV open loop dumb card with basic fare transit for users with approved bank cards
  • Plastic transit MIFARE smart cards covering all fares including special fare discounts, commuter passes, etc., for everybody else

Oyster, Opal and Ventra wanted to add mobile support across the board but this meant supporting EMV and MIFARE. All of these are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems who worked with the bank card companies and came up with a new product to solve the dilemma: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards.

Open Loop 2.0
Apple Pay Ventra is this new EMV closed loop mobile transit card product, the launch gave us a first glimpse of the 3 layer fare system:

  • Plastic and digital EMV open loop dumb cards with basic fare transit for users with approved bank cards
  • Digital EMV closed loop dumb cards that cover regular fares and commute passes with special fares to be added later
  • Legacy plastic MIFARE transit cards for everybody else

It’s still a mixed EMV and MIFARE environment but MIFARE is limited to legacy plastic transit cards that can be bought with cash at station kiosks. But we can be sure that MIFARE will be phased out at some point.

The Apple Pay Ventra model is being used for digital Opal trials on Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, and is on tap for digital Oyster and digital OMNY. A basic outline:

  • The transit card is actually a EMV Mastercard prepaid debit card issued by 3rd party bank
  • The Mastercard as transit card is ‘closed loop’ and can only be used for transit and nothing else
  • The user must create an account to use the digital card. The transit account and prepaid/debit information is centralized and managed by the card issuer, nothing is stored value
  • All digital transit card management and housekeeping (adding or transferring cards, recharge, checking the balance, etc.) must be done in a separate app (Ventra App, Opal App, etc.), nothing can be done directly in Wallet
  • Express Transit is not part of the native EMV card architecture and has to be added as part of broader open loop support on the backend fare system by the operator and Apple, this is why Express Transit is missing in the initial test phase of digital Opal: the current Opal fare system does not support it

As this is an EMV bank card dressed up as a transit card, it is still limited by EMV card architecture and bank card network protocol. In place of local stored value it uses the bank card account model. On mobile this means all card housekeeping is in the app, users can’t create, transfer or recharge transit cards directly in Wallet like Suica, PASMO, SmarTrip or TAP. Direct reload/recharge in Wallet is not supported because the EMV format itself does not support local stored value. Apple Watch users can’t recharge EMV transit cards without the iPhone app. And like all cloud dependent services everything stops when networks goes down.

Mobile Suica does an excellent job of balancing and combining the strengths of local processed stored value performance, usability and reliability with the power of cloud attached services. It’s the gold standard of what a transit payment platform on mobile can achieve: leveraging transit card micro accounts to attach services and build business instead of giving it away to banks. Digital Opal testers familiar with Suica notice the difference and missing features:

Open Loop 3.0?
For centralized cloud proponents, including Junya Suzuki, the ultimate dream is having one cloud based account using facial recognition for all payment and transit needs. Cubic and centralized account proponents are already looking to speed up London transit gates beyond slow EMV card technology with barrier free face recognition transit gates:

according to CUBIC…their ‘fastrack gateless gateline’ concept, which is currently conducting small user testing, eliminates physical barriers to form an extended corridor-like gateway that between 65 and 75 users can walk through in a minute, whilst their faces are being scanned and synced for payment with their smartphones

Facial recognition to be your future ticket on the London Underground

The joke here is that, (1) JR East achieved those over 60 people per minute walk through levels with FeliCa based Suica cards and open barrier transit gates long ago, (2) the COVID face mask era is a huge challenge for face recognition systems, (3) Touchless transit, Express Transit on steroids, is already in the works.

Personally I think the Ultra Wideband Touchless approach that leverages personal biometric authentication from the user’s smartphone secure enclave instead of having it hosted on somebody else’s cloud system is the safer and more practical way to go. Privacy advocates will agree.

Speed is safety
Tap speed matters more than even in the COVID era

The next installment of the Contactless Payment Turf Wars
If nothing else closed loop EMV transit dumb cards reveal how bankrupt the ‘open loop is open’ argument really is. All Cubic and the card companies did was swap MIFARE for EMV, neither of which are open. And tap speeds are slower than ever with EMV the supermarket checkout protocol, so now we need Face ID transit gates to speed things up.

It’s fake debate. The real debate is online centralization for fare processing where everybody is forced to have a mobile account whether they need it or want it or not. And once everybody is forced to have an account to use transit the next step is forcing facial recognition.

The short term lesson here is that when transit agencies let banks and card companies run the transit fare concession they will never be free of them: there’s too much private money to be made off of running the backend services attached to public infrastructure. The long term lesson is that the mobile digital wallet solutions for Ventra, Opal, Oyster and OMNY are not about transit user convenience and all about convenience for misguided transit operators and their subcontractors.


Reader Questions
Instead of answering questions or comments via Twitter etc., I’ll answer here for the benefit of all readers.

Q: Not being able to recharge within Apple Pay has nothing to do with EMV vs. stored value though, right? If anything, that should be easier (just move money between accounts).

A: It’s true that MIFARE stored value transit cards such as HOP Fastpass force users to recharge via the app. The point of the piece is that EMV transit card features are defined by the EMV format, bank card protocols and how it’s all implemented on digital wallet platforms. In short, bank issuers control the feature set on the backend. I have yet to see a recharge button on any EMV prepaid card in Apple Pay Wallet, I suspect we’ll always see most operations limited to bank issuer apps, even for transit.

C: The open loathing of banks and credit card companies is honestly quite nauseating (but understandable, considering what Japanese banks are like, apart from the credit card companies).

A: Banks and card companies have an important place in transit, but card company ‘one size solves all’ open loop marketing is misleading and profitable mischief. A good transit fare system is all about balance, flexibility and incorporating innovation such as mobile wallets, for the benefit of transit users and safe operations. Bank cards for example are a wonderfully convenient recharge backend, this is where they shine and add real value to the transit user experience.

But swapping out a native transit fare system with an outsourced bank card account system and tech package that the transit company doesn’t ‘own’ is asking for trouble. How much is the long term cost when it doesn’t solve everything as promised? Who really benefits: the transit user, the transit company, or the system partners and consultants?

These are the questions I think people should be asking and discussing. Hopefully my posts outline the issues clearly so people can discuss them to find the best fit long term solution based on local transit region conditions.

2 NFC Antennas for iPhone 12

New iPhone specs are always fun to compare and analyze. On the NFC front we have a few changes in iPhone 12. NFC is now listed twice, first in the Cellular and Wireless section as “NFC with reader mode,” and again the MacSafe section as “Accessory Identification NFC.”

The keynote also shows NFC twice: once using iPhone 12 to unlock a door and again in the MagSafe section as a ‘single-turn coil NFC.’ So there we have it: the good old Apple Pay NFC antenna with embedded Secure Element for transactions where it has always been on the top of iPhone, and a new MagSafe NFC antenna for tag reading MagSafe accessories on the back that doesn’t need a secure element for card emulation transactions and might incorporate the NFC Forum Wireless Charging Specification. Hopefully Apple will release MagSafe developer documentation later on so we can find out. Some users wondered if the new MacSafe NFC would interfere with 3rd party card cases and using Apple Pay, but this doesn’t seem to be the case, no pun intended.

The NFC Forum Specification includes wireless charging but it’s not clear if MagSafe includes it.

What about ‘NFC with reader mode’? This is just the new name for Background NFC tag reading which was listed in previous models that have all been updated to the new name. Another welcome addition is the return of Suica (removed in the iPhone SE Apple Pay section) along with the just released Apple Pay PASMO mention in the iPhone 12 JP Apple Pay specs.

Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


When your iPhone X NFC stops working

A while ago Apple Pay just stopped working on my iPhone X. My phone simply hasn’t been detected by any NFC readers I’ve tried. At this point I finally have some spare income and would like to invest in fixing it. I don’t particularly care how involved it is, but I just can’t find any information on where the actual NFC antenna is and if it has the same lock that the face ID sensors do. I’m sorry if I’m just missing some fairly obvious information here. I would just like to be able to use Apple Pay again.

Reddit post

The Express Transit user base has greatly expanded in the US with the rollout of Apple Pay SmarTrip and Apple Pay TAP. Some iPhone X users invariably discover that iPhone X has problems using Express Transit and consider getting it repaired. iPhone X AppleCare is expired for most people at this point, getting iPhone X NFC repaired isn’t cheap…or easy.

I ran across a Reddit post asking about the self repair challenge. The iPhone X has a unique volume button / NFC antenna cable design. I suspect this volume button / NFC antenna cable is the culprit behind the infamous long running iPhone X NFC problem. Some repair forums report that the volume button / NFC antenna cable is serialized and simply replacement may not work.

I’ll cut to the chase: unless you love spending time and money repairing the notoriously difficult to repair iPhone X, I strongly urge you get a replacement from Apple if you can, or better yet upgrade to iPhone SE. The NFC just works and Touch ID is much better than Face ID when navigating the outside world wearing a face mask. You also get A13 Express Transit power reserve and background NFC tag reading that works great with iOS 14 App Clips. Altogether a much better Apple Pay package for our COVID face mask era.

Blame the Apple Pay Ventra delay on open loop

Washington DC SmarTrip and Greater Los Angeles TAP transit cards both launched on Apple Pay the first week of September within days of each other. They upstaged Apple Pay Ventra which was announced as ‘coming soon’ way back in March 2019 but has yet to launch. Chicago Ventra users are understandably frustrated with the ‘coming soon’ Apple Pay Ventra, especially when CTA celebrates the Apple Pay SmarTrip rollout with another Ventra ‘coming soon’ ad.

All three fare systems are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems who also run the London Oyster and Sydney Opal systems. Cubic systems all use the same MIFARE smartcard technology but the interesting thing about SmarTrip and TAP is: (1) they are the first Cubic managed digital wallet transit cards, (2) neither system has implemented open loop fare payments for tap and go credit cards.

Ventra, Oyster and Opal all have open loop, and as of this writing Cubic has yet to deliver those transit cards on digital wallets. Why?

The SmarTrip/TAP Apple Pay launch gave us the answer that nobody wants to discuss: open loop support adds a layer of complexity and cost that stymies native digital transit card support. Complexity and higher cost means fewer choices, delays, and mediocre performance, simple as that.

Steve Jobs explained it best in his last public appearance. A great product or service comes down to focus and choices, either you can focus on making certain technologies work great on your platform versus just okay when you’re spreading yourself too thin. Ventra is spread too thin, that’s why Apple Pay Ventra and Google Pay Ventra are delayed more than a year after being announced.

Open Loop is sold as the cost effective future of transit ticketing but it’s had a surprisingly rocky time in the American market. The failure is pinned on transit companies but I think credit companies are to blame. The arguments for open loop are plastic era constructs that ignore how mobile digital wallet platforms and mobile apps have changed everything. For example the oft cited open loop benefit of plastic smartcard issue cost savings completely overlooks the cost savings of digital transit cards on smartphones.

It’s high time for the credit card industry to rewrite the open loop marketing script for the mobile era, but they don’t want to do that. Expect more of the same. In the meantime, let’s hope the SmarTrip and TAP Apple Pay rollout is a sign that Chicago will be getting Apple Pay Ventra soon.

UPDATE: Apple Pay Ventra finally launched October 26 2020, more than a year after it was announced. And, surprise surprise, it’s a EMV Mastercard debit/prepaid card disguised as a transit card, the world’s first closed open loop card.