Mobile Suica has had a rough 2 weeks. On June 24 a construction error during server center power supply expansion work left JR East Mobile Suica and Eki-Net online reservation services offline for 12 hours (0:00~12:00). It was an embarrassing mishap but the actual damage was small, limited to refunding Eki-Net ticket holders who couldn’t change ticket reservations. Mobile Suica was offline so no refunding was necessary because nobody could use the Mobile Suica credit card recharge service. No need to refund what people can’t buy.
A shorter but much more problematic outage happened on June 27. Media mistakenly reported that Mobile Suica was down but this was not the case as Mobile Suica on Android was working just fine. It was an Apple Pay problem: Apple Pay servers went down from heavy demand on Apple Pay ICOCA launch day, taking down not only Apple Pay Suica recharge but also PASMO, ICOCA, nanaco, WAON, Octopus, China T-Union, adding credit cards and other Wallet services worldwide. As the outage took place during the Japanese business day, JR East had to refund iOS Suica App users who attempted to buy or use Suica Green Car tickets during the Apple Pay outage.
Just as things were settling down, another even shorter 40 minute period of trouble occurred on July 8 at 12:00~12:40 JST. Again the media reported that Mobile Suica was down, again they were mistaken, and again it wasn’t an JR East or Mobile Suica problem, it was a much wider, and unreported, EMV credit card payment network outage. EMV transactions on readers everywhere were not responding, and they were not working for Apple Pay or Google Pay. However FeliCa payment network cards were working.
And finally there was, yet another, Apple Pay and Wallet outage on July 14 from 17:45 to 18:30 JST, with another round of Japanese media bashing poor old Mobile Suica without checking for the wider Apple Pay outage.
Mobile Suica caught the media blame because they were the only company duly reporting the problems on Mobile Suica support SNS services. JR East never lays an outage blame on Apple Pay, or any other service partner because they know Mobile Suica users don’t care, they only want to know when things are not working and when they will be fixed. This is the way it should be done because they are giving their users fast, accurate, service information…even if that means they have to take the media and SNS blame that comes with it.
But despite all the Mobile Suica outages including the EMV payment network one, the Suica card itself always remained working, both digital or plastic versions. As long as there is money on the card it works for transit and payments, and cash recharge is available 24/7. This is an under appreciated but very important aspect of the Transit IC system: there is always a non-network fail safe cash backup. Japanese never put all their household finances in one basket, cash is always the one thing that works after an earthquake, typhoon, natural or manmade infrastructure damaging disaster strikes.
In the EMV credit card payment network outage there was, without doubt, unreported trouble with open loop system test deployments on Nankai, Fukuoka Metro and other QUADRAC • stera transit operated systems, which all open loop systems in Japan use: it’s the only open loop player in town.
Unlike Mobile Suica however, when the credit card payment processing network goes down, open loop doesn’t have a fail safe cash backup. And while that’s not a problem now with small installation test sites and a tiny user base, it will be when open loop goes big time. The transit companies deploying open loop have an obligation to take care of their customers, but will they take JR East-like responsibility when QUADRAC goes down, or stera goes down, or NTT Data CAFIS, payment processing centers, or mobile carrier networks? Because believe me they will. All highly connected, interdependent networks do. That’s why we always need alternative methods and networks. Too bad that VISA is working to remove the non-EMV transit gate competition in Japan.
With the successful launch of Mobile ICOCA (2023-03-22) on Osaifu Keitai Android, it’s time to think about Apple Pay ICOCA that was formally announced today (2023-04-17) as coming ‘this year’. The timing depends on how quickly Apple tests and qualifies ICOCA for Apple Pay, and how badly JR West wants to launch.
And believe me, Apple Pay ICOCA needs to launch sooner than later because JR West will never achieve their stated goal of 5 million Mobile ICOCA users without Apple Pay. However the ICOCA service menu on Apple Pay might be different than Suica or PASMO. Apple Pay Suica works out of the box without Suica App or registering an account. Based on Mobile ICOCA on Android, Apple Pay ICOCA might require ICOCA App and a registered WESTER ID. Let’s take a look.
The WESTER ID requirement for Mobile ICOCA Android The Mobile ICOCA app for Osaifu Keitai Android allows registered WESTER users to add a new ICOCA, transfer a Mobile ICOCA card from another device, reissue a Mobile ICOCA (from a lost or damaged device). The key point is that: only registered WESTER ID users can create and add a Mobile ICOCA card. No plastic card transfers to mobile are allowed because they include unregistered cards bought at a station kiosk. Does this means ICOCA will not have native Apple Wallet add card support like Suica and PASMO?
Technically transit cards added natively in Wallet are ‘unregistered’ cards, but in reality they are registered to the Apple ID. A careful reading of JR West’s carefully worded Apple Pay ICOCA announcement states, “you can add your ICOCA card to Wallet.” JR West is playing it carefully, it might be native Wallet add, or transfer plastic card add. We won’t know until service details are released, but releasing a different and more limited service than Apple Pay Suica or PASMO won’t wash well with vocal Kansai area users or grow the ICOCA user base.
If JR West goes the WESTER ID requirement route, we’ll have the Japanese version of HOP or Ventra. When you take a look at the transit card list in Wallet for the United States you’ll notice that Chicago Ventra and Portland HOP are not listed even though they appear on the Apple support page: Where you can ride transit using Apple Pay. This is because even though these cards can be added to Wallet, they have the same limits Mobile ICOCA does: only registered cards can only be added from an app, plastic card transfers to Wallet not supported.
JR West is doing this because they are positioning Mobile ICOCA on Android as part of the JR West WESTER portal service for earning WESTER POINT with transit use and purchases, and using WESTER POINT for recharge, eTickets, and more. You have to have a WESTER ID to add and use Mobile ICOCA. Why? I suspect it has to do with the end of paper ticket coupons, the old reliable buy 10 get one free. These were incredibly popular in the JR West Kansai area and said to be one of the reasons why it took so long for ICOCA to go mobile. Having WESTER and Mobile ICOCA as one package deal means JR West has the mobile equivalent of paper ticket coupons in place giving WESTER POINT rewards.
JR East’s focus on the other hand, is all about growing the Mobile Suica user base with JRE POINT as an option that adds value to being a Mobile Suica user. Yes JRE POINT and Suica offer the mobile equivalent of paper ticket coupons too, but the JR East service ecosystem is messy. Users have to register and juggle separate accounts for Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, VIEW CARD and so on. JR West is shoehorning all of their services into one WESTER ID to streamline everything and make it easier for users.
Full embrace of Apple Pay drives growth One of the very nice things about Suica is that anybody can add it to Wallet and recharge it with Apple Pay credit cards. Apple Pay Suica Commuter Pass users can also renew passes in Wallet directly. Will ICOCA have the same? The announcement suggests so, a good sign because if JR West keeps Apple Pay at arms length and restricts all recharge and commuter pass renewal to ICOCA app, there will be no add money button in Wallet and no recharge with Apple Pay. This is what we see with Apple Pay Ventra and Apple Pay HOP: card issue, recharge, commute plan renewal is all restricted to registered account users in the iOS app. This kind of recharge limitation is a huge pain for Apple Watch users. We won’t know for sure until JR West releases clearly outlined service details.
JR East achieved 20 million Mobile Suica users because of their full embrace of Apple Pay and unregistered Mobile Suica cards. Users can add and use Suica on iPhone and Apple Watch right out of the box without a Mobile Suica account or an app. It just works. It’s the deal same for Mobile Suica on Garmin, Fitbit and Pixel Watch. The Mobile Suica service ecosystem may be messy, but it works on a huge variety of mobile devices.
The JR West approach is streamlined but does risk reducing the potential Mobile ICOCA user base if they restrict it to WESTER ID account holders and ICOCA App. Little details like full Wallet support makes all the difference with user growth. It all comes down to business choices: JR West wants WESTER ecosystem users, JR East wants Suica users, but how much does JR West want Mobile ICOCA users? If JR West closes the door to unregistered Mobile ICOCA on Apple Pay and Wallet recharge, Kansai users who don’t need commuter passes or WESTER points will use Mobile Suica. Actually, they already are.
Android 10 devices: the Osaifu Keitai supported devices list is limited to modern Android 10 devices that support multiple transit cards (Suica + PASMO + ICOCA) with only one card set as the default ‘Express Transit’ card.
WESTERID required: this new point system + single ID for multiple JR West online services was put in place just for Mobile ICOCA and a registered account is required for Mobile ICOCA. Similar to JRE POINT, users earn points from transit use, recharge and purchases at participating stores. WESTER POINT to Mobile ICOCA recharge is built in and self contained, more streamlined than JRE POINT app to Suica app recharge. J-WEST credit cards earn the most WESTER POINT for recharge and commute plan purchase.
Users can register 3-D Secure 2.0 credit cards for recharge in the Mobile ICOCA app but ‘some foreign issue cards’ are not supported (looking at you foreign issue VISA)
No wearables (Garmin, Fitbit, etc.) yet, Apple Watch will be first hopefully followed by WearOS devices later
No auto-charge support…a real pain point, stick with plastic if you want this feature.
Mobile Commute Plans: most regular and university student commute plans are supported including JR West + Osaka Metro/Hankyu/Keihan/Nankai/Hanshin routes, but other commute plan types/routes are not. These include, FREX Shinkansen plans, HS/JHS student plans (launching on Mobile Suica and PASMO March 18), disability discount commute plans, bus and trolley routes, and routes that include the JR West Tsuruga~Ishikawa Hokuriku line that will transfer from JR West to third sector ownership in 2024. Stand alone ICOCA commuter passes for Hankyu, Keihan, Osaka Metro routes that do not include JR West lines are not supported.
Suica and PASMO together account for roughly 80% of all Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. In other words, 90% of the issued transit card market has mobile service. It will be very interesting to see how the Mobile ICOCA migration works out. I’ll update this post with details as they become available.
It’s time to take a look at Suica and Japanese mobile transit ticketing developments expected for 2023. The Suica transit platform and Transit IC partners will introduce some big and important new service in 2023 that will play out over the next few years. Some like Cloud Suica, were due years ago. Some, like Mobile ICOCA should have been done years ago. And some are a response to COVID which is the inflection point that has changed Japanese transit forever. There is no going back to the transit world that was 2019 due to, mostly imagined, fear. Once fear takes hold in society, it becomes a mindset and mindsets are very hard to change.
There is also the cashless factor. COVID kicked the Japanese cashless migration into high gear, but this smashing success hasn’t made life any easier in the checkout line, no thanks to QR Code payment apps like PayPay and dPoint, with people taking longer to pay than even before as they dig around for coupons and discounts codes in smartphone apps. These code payments apps also changed the consumer mindset: they don’t want plain old points, they want points that work like cash, everywhere and instantaneous, instead of being stuck in point ghettos like JRE POINT. This is exactly what the PayPay and Rakuten point economic zones deliver.
The biggest COVID business casualty has been transit, with profitable commuter passes taking the biggest hit as companies transitioned to working from home and Zoom conferences whenever possible. And while people are using transit more since mid 2022, it has not recovered enough to stabilize transit company bottom lines. It’s a tough environment with companies trying to entice people, especially workers, to ride again with transit point perks and off-peak commuter discounts.
Private (non-JR) transit companies in particular are looking to offer more flexible fare options beyond what transit IC card systems currently offer. This is created a huge opening for the SMBC group stera transit open loop system: an off the shelf package ticketing system that combines transit gate reader hardware and cloud system from QUADRAC hooked into the SMBC stera payment platform. The SMBC stera transit marketing team is hard selling flexible fares such as fare capping and open loop appeal for inbound tourism.
It’s clear that JR Group and Transit IC association partners have to innovate and change to reduce costs while keeping the great convenience and benefits of the Suica transit payment platform. However as Steve Jobs once said about focus, focus is about saying no. You can either focus on making one service work great on your platform or just okay when you’re spreading limited resources too thin on supporting too many services. Do Japanese transit companies want better Transit IC for everybody or mediocre ticketing potpourri as money and engineering resources are diverted to bolting on open loop for a limited user base?
2023 Outlook That said the main arc of Suica and Transit IC for 2023 is expansion. Suica, ICOCA, TOICA are expanding station coverage but in different ways. JR West ICOCA will expand to cover all stations in 2023 with a mix of hardwired station gates, ICOCA equipped trains and region affiliate buses. And of course there is Mobile ICOCA launching this spring. JR Central has outlined a similar strategy for TOICA but no Mobile TOICA plans so far.
JR East had opted for hardwired stations using a mobile connected Cloud Suica system for lightweight fare processing. At the same time they are expanding Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate card reach with new cards and service extensions to existing cards. With all that in mind, let’s examine the month by month launch slate.
While it’s good that Suica and Transit IC cards can offer features and services attached to the card number, the current reality is that each service comes with a separate app, separate registration process and ID/PW login. There isn’t a single sign-in service, a JR East version of Sign in with Apple ID, for easy service registration and linking. Smartphone users are already drowning in apps, I don’t see most people using the growing tangle of services unless there is an easy to use and secure single sign-in service and streamlined UI.
March March and April are traditionally busy months with new schools, new jobs, buying new commuter passes that go with them, and launching new services:
1) Mobile ICOCA launches March 22. Mobile ICOCA will be hosted in similar fashion to Mobile PASMO which is based on Mobile Suica assets and cloud infrastructure. Osaifu Keitai will launch first followed by iPhone. This is a big development. JR West is building their ICOCA system expansion in a slightly different way than Cloud Suica by using separate ICOCA tap in/out readers on local trains and stripped down, simple ICOCA (no commuter pass support) for connecting transit affiliates. One interesting trend is the decline of PiTaPa card users since Kansai area private rail companies started offering ICOCA commuter passes (see the chart at the bottom of the post).
2) Off Peak Suica Commuter Pass COVID has made it clear that the old style ‘station to station’ commuter pass is outdated and its fare model needs to be modernized to bring business users back. All transit companies have to come up with new flexible commute plans that work for different work commute styles.
After dicking around with the confusing and convoluted off peak transit JRE POINT service campaign for 2 years amid a COVID induced commuter pass crisis, JR East is trying again: the confusing ‘Off Peak Commutes Pass’. Available for Suica cards and Mobile Suica, these new passes offer a 10% discount over regular commuter passes that are rising 1.4% with the condition: they must be used outside of the designated start station peak rush time. If you enter the transit gate during the peak rush time, bam, your Suica transit is charged the standard fare. No commute plan for you.
While this is a welcome development it doesn’t far enough. Flexible fare distance capped commute plans that are not tied to specific stations would be a much better deal for occasional business users. For example it would be great for sales people if there were commute plans that combined a selection of fixed distance zones (10 km, 20 km, 50 km, etc) with a selection of fixed trips (10, 20, 30 trips, etc.).
This isn’t a technology or system problem, it’s a business model mind-set problem. JR East has the Suica system in place to take mobile ticketing to the next level. It’s time that the JR Group lead the way for all transit companies to cooperate for a seamless national mobile transit solution.
Sendai Suica (with the odeca region joining in July)
The challenge of disability fare Suica/PASMO/Transit IC is that while the card is issued by the transit operator, the disability Suica card has to be certified using the resident city issued disability ID. This authorization is why disability Suica/PASMO is limited to plastic cards for the time being, at least until Digital My Number Card is launched on Android and iPhone. Why is disability fare Suica important? Up until now Suica has been a ‘stored Fare is stored fare’ one size fits all card. Suica has to evolve to include different fare types and services to survive as a viable transit payment platform.
4) Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Commute Plans for High/Jr. High School Students Another big push away from plastic to mobile with a streamlined app process for student commuter pass certification via updated Suica and PASMO apps. Hopefully a more streamlined mobile app certification process for student passes paves the way forward for disability fare issue Mobile Suica/PASMO as well. Local governments need to help make this happen.
April ICOCA extensions close the Transit IC gap between Honshu and Kyushu for thru transit via Shinkansen and plastic ICOCA/Sugoca commuter passes starting April 1. This is similar to the Suica-TOICA-ICOCA Atami and Maibara station extensions that launched in March 2021. The final piece of the JR puzzle is integrating their systems for thru local fare transit with regular plastic and mobile cards. It’s long overdue that they eliminate this last nonsensical nuance.
May 1) Cloud Suica extensions. A big one, a new Suica fare system that powers the Tohoku region Suica extensions for Aomoi (10 stations), Morioka (18 stations), Akita (17 stations) launches May 27. As outlined the separate posts, Cloud Suica is best thought of as Suica 2.0. The card is the same but the reader side and processing system is completely new. Ideally Suica 2.0 offers the best matchup of local stored fare with internet cloud based transaction processing instead of expensive dedicated pipes to the data processing center.
Lower system costs is one objective but not the only important one. The Suica 2.0 fare processing system will also power the new QR Eki-Net Ticket service that launches in the very same Tohoku Suica region in late FY 2024 (October 2024~March 2025). We’ll found out how flexible Suica 2.0 is if JR East starts offering much more fare innovation.
It’s important to reexamine the role of Suica 2 in 1 here. We have two new Suica developments that converge in the Tohoku region: we have the Suica 2 in 1 card itself, new updated FeliCa card and OS with new Suica architecture, and we have the cloud based Suica 2.0 fare system. In other words we have a Suica 2.0 card coupled with the Suica 2.0 processing system.
July 1) Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate odeca card joins the system, the first established transit card updating to the 2 in 1 format. All 2 in 1 cards to date have been new cards. The next established non-Suica compatible transit card transitioning to Suica 2 in 1 is Nagano City Kururu card in 2025.
2) Open loop stera transit comes to Tokyo in a big way as Tokyu Railway starts tests. If it’s anything like the gradual Nankai open loop tests, a few important stations will have a few gates retrofitted with open look EMV contactless and closed loop QR Code readers. They will also surely offer a smartphone app for QR ticket purchase and display. One interesting aspect of the Tokyu Railway effort is that Tokyu were responsible for pushing, and paying for, Mobile PASMO. It would not have happened otherwise.
The rest of 2023 There will certainly be more services announcements and launches in the 2nd half of the year such as Apple Pay ICOCA and more open loop test installations.
Coming in 2024 We have Suica linked financial services coming with JRE BANK (rebranded Rakuten Bank cloud infrastructure), Yamagata region Suica extensions (21 stations) and unspecified Sendai Suica region extensions that will pretty much complete the installation of Suica on the entire JR East rail network. And of course QR Eki-Net Tickets which build on all the Cloud Suica infrastructure rolling out this year.
As always I will update this overview post as new services are announced with links to individual posts and updated guides.
Now that the 1st wave of Suica 2 in 1 card launches is complete, it’s a good time to review the ‘State of Suica’. And it’s always interesting to examine the cultural differences too, when it comes to labeling trends as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Westerners for example invariably say, what’s the point of having so many Suica card flavors? It’s a waste, better to have just one. It’s a classic double standard professing to want but insisting that life should revolve around single kind of credit card. Japanese don’t seem to care much as the culture is adept at ‘振り分け’: this thing for doing this, that thing for doing that. And the region affiliate users getting Suica for the first time seem pretty excited and all Suica varieties work the same for transit and e-Money purchases.
As of now we have the following plastic Suica card flavors beside the regular Suica available at station kiosks: Rinkai Suica, Monorail Suica, Welcome Suica and Suica Light. On the Mobile Suica side we have: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay, along with branded Mobile Suica for Rakuten Suica and au Suica on Osaifu Keitai and Mizuho Suica on iOS. Last but not least we have 11 new Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit cards that are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy.
What exactly are the differences? It comes down to commuter passes or points. For Suica 2 in 1 cards specifically, it is both. This is a small but very important difference. All the other non-regular Suica outside 2 in 1, come with specific features and limitations. Rakuten and KDDI au users can recharge those Suica with those outside point systems but they can’t add commute plans. Welcome Suica expires in 28 days, Rinkai and Monorail Suica exist for commuter passes and nothing else, and so on.
Suica 2 in 1 doesn’t have limitations and does more than any other Suica: it can hold 2 different commuter passes (one from JR East, one from the region affiliate) and it supports 2 different point systems: messy JRE POINT which is an optional account setup manually linked to the Suica card number, and local government subsidized region affiliate transit points which are automatic and stored on the card itself. The only thing the user needs to do is use the appropriate card for transit to earn and use transit point discounts.
In a mobile payment era where everybody is distinguishing themselves with increasingly complex reward point schemes, the simplicity and flexibility of Suica 2 in 1 transit points, think of it as locally processed transit point stored fare, can go places that old Suica cannot. Imagine how many more people would use Suica transit in Tokyo if it came with transit point discounts. There are other 2 in 1 features not yet supported by regular Suica: disabled and elderly transit user discounts. These are coming to Tokyo area plastic issue Suica, and PASMO too, this October though I suspect those won’t come to Mobile Suica until it gets an upgrade.
Mobile FeliCa hasn’t been updated to the next generation ‘Super Suica’ FeliCa SD2 architecture yet, but once updated we should see Suica 2 in 1 on mobile and new Suica features, along with more Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. All in all the new Suica 2 in 1 card format tells us where JR East wants to go.
There are some interesting numbers from the JR East FY results. All things transit took a huge hit in FY 2021 from the COVID pandemic, Suica included, but are now recovering though still below pre-covid transaction levels. Another surprise is the popularity of Eki-Net eTickets, a 39% usage rate is not bad for a service that only started in March 2020. One of the smarter things JR East did with Eki-Net eTicket discounts is making them simple and available to all Eki-Net users and credit cards. The JR Central EX system has 2 different Shinkansen eTicket tiers (EX-Press and smartEX) with larger EX discounts limited to select credit cards.