Road to Super Suica: cloud integration

Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service via Suica App ended in March 2020, replaced by the cloud based JR East Eki-net Shinkansen eTicket service. Since Mobile Suica Shinkansen is gone and Ekinet eTickets live on the cloud, I assumed that iOS 14 PassKit would remove the Mobile Suica Shinkansen related (isInShinkansenStation) call because there’s no need for it anymore.

A reader pointed out that I was wrong. iOS still uses the PassKit Suica Shinkansen call with Eki-net eTickets and Notification Center throws out the same ‘Shinkansen’ Suica Notification when the user goes through a JR East Shinkansen gate with a cloud based eTicket.

The eTicket cloud service interaction with the local Apple Pay Suica card on iPhone offers some insight into what JR East (JRE) is up to as it closes in on the next generation ‘2 in 1’ Suica architecture due for release in spring 2021. JRE has said many times and in many ways that the future of the Suica platform will combine cloud services with the fast local processing of the FeliCa powered Suica architecture. However, details are few, with different pieces dribbled out in bits.

What’s the overall vision and goal of next generation 2 in 1 Suica, which I call Super Suica? There’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s examine things in 2 basic categories: the card architecture (offline and local) and the platform (cloud) even as those distinctions are increasingly blurred. Here is my take based on what JRE has announced so far.

Super Suica: the Transit Card

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018 for release in spring 2021.

The next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica architecture hosts partner transit cards and services on Suica infrastructure, effectively extending the Suica system to non-JRE transit companies. 2 in 1 partner transit cards gain the benefit of Suica hardware and Mobile Suica infrastructure with considerable cost savings related to plastic card issue and management. The heart of Super Suica remains the offline stored fare. JRE hopes to grow Mobile Suica cloud services as much as possible with the lower cost next generation Super Suica architecture and a Cloud Suica backend system.

Stored Value Update, Region expansion and Commuter Pass Changes
Starting with the basics, it’s a no-brainer that Super Suica will raise the current ¥20,000 stored value limit, likely doubling it to ¥40,000. This would put it in line with other eMoney prepaid cards like WAON and nanaco, also similar to the recent Hong Kong Octopus stored value update. The increase would have broad appeal to tourists, business travelers and shoppers everywhere and extend the JR East ‘Touch ‘n Go” ticketless Shinkansen service area.

Transit cards cover wide areas but transit card commuter pass areas are currently limited to sub-regions hard-wired for IC transit card support. Source JR East fact sheet Suica section

A long standing hurdle for Super Suica to clear is the transit IC card region limitation. The current Transit IC system uses unique fare regions for each card (Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, etc.) and the stored value doesn’t work across fare regions. Transit systems within the same card region such as JR East and PASMO have their fare systems connected so that a user’s transit card can enter a JR East station then exit a PASMO member station with the fare instantly calculated and deducted from the offline card balance.

This region limitation is a problem for transit users in fringe areas. In order to use an IC transit card they have to exit and re-enter separate transit company gates at specific transfer station points. The only viable cross region options have been mag strip commuter passes or paper tickets.

2 in 1 Commuter Passes
In September 2019 JR East, JR Central and JR West announced new cross region commuter pass rules going into effect in spring of 2021, exactly when Super Suica arrives. The new cross region transit card commuter passes cover cross region regular train transit up to 300km.Superficially the changes are about making cross region local to Shinkansen transfers easier for commuters, but the timing, and the necessity of issuing brand new cards for cross region commuter passes suggests other changes are coming.

The ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica concept has special meaning for commuter passes. The current Suica only supports 2 basic patterns via a card id commuter pass account number: JR East only lines, and connected commuter passes covering JR East and connecting lines. 2 in 1 Super Suica will support 2 separate commuter passes: one hosted by the non-JR East transit partner for rail and bus lines and one hosted by JR East.


Super Suica: the Platform

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map

One primary aim of Super Suica is extending the platform reach with shared infrastructure to rural areas too small to establish their own local transit cards. Pay close attention to the transit cards outside the pink area, with the exception of PiTaPa. These are 2nd tier local area transit cards currently orphaned from eMoney or transit interoperability. There are also ‘off the map’ areas such as Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. who have announced Super Suica 2 in 1 agreements with JRE.

Super Suica enlarges the pink area to include those 2nd tier and off the map cards. Those who sign on join the common interpretability area for transit and eMoney, and also gain access to Mobile Suica hosted Apple Pay Suica, Google Pay Suica and Osaifu Keitai. This is a real boon for smaller areas who, up to now, couldn’t afford to launch their own card operations. I suspect it will be very attractive to all transit card operators who run on shoe string budgets, they can save money by offloading card operations to JRE and get the mobile support in the bargain.

What does Super Suica mean for the major transit cards like JR West (ICOCA), JR Central (TOICA) and others? It depends on what kind of deal JRE offers them. Even if the majors don’t sign on directly I see them getting access to the new Suica card format and Mobile Suica IT assets.

2 in 1 Reward Points and Auto-Charge
In addition to the 2 in 1 commuter passes, Super Suica also supports different reward point systems. ‘2 in 1’ partner Super Suica users will be able to exchange points for a Super Suica recharge just like they do now with JRE POINT and Rakuten Pay points. Auto-Charge for 2 in 1 partner branded credit cards will certainly be supported as well. Points and Auto-Charge may seem mundane but they are very important to customers and transit companies, a vital part of luring foot traffic, new businesses and visitors to local areas in an era of shrinking passenger traffic.

Expanding and leveraging the Recharge Backend
The ever expanding Mobile Suica recharge backend is a fascinating development mostly ignored by the media even though it’s where the action is. Suica and the other transit cards are a huge green pasture full of cash (less) cows waiting to be milked by card companies and payment platforms. JRE lets them milk Mobile Suica cows for a cut. Up until Apple Pay Suica came along in 2016, JRE was the only recharge backend. As of July 2020 there are 5: JRE, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Mizuho, Rakuten. 2 in 1 partners will have the ability to add their own recharge backends with apps, if they so choose.

Other points to remember: the recharge backend only works on iOS and Android platforms, point rewards can be used for Suica recharge. Currently that only works with JRE POINT and Rakuten Points but this will be extended to the ‘2 in 1’ partner point systems.

JR East plans to grow Suica financial services and has invested in crypto coin ventures

MaaS NFC Tag Suica
It’s clear that the really big Super Suica changes will be on the cloud side. Transit card eMoney has been a huge success, but Suica has to evolve to remain a viable payment platform in today’s hyper competitive world of mobile payments.

That next step is Suica NFC Tag payments. Think of it as Suica transactions without a reader, let’s call it MaaS Suica. JRE joined the MaaS alliance in November 2019 closely followed by an December 2019 press release announcing NFC Tag tests with 4 partners: JRE (Suica), DNP (NFC Tags), Sony (FeliCa) and AquaBit Spirals (NFC Tag SmartPlate payments software).

JRE & us (AquaBit Spirals) have announced to conduct technical verification for the use of NFC tags focusing on transportation and ‘payments’, and that the role of Sony is to investigate technical specs as part of promoting a lifestyle through ‘FeliCa’ tech. You may know what we mean😉

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara

It’s clearly implied by the diagram and by comments from AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara that Suica powers the NFC Tag payments middle section via the cloud. This means the Suica card balance on a device works ‘over the cloud’. Suica is unchained from the NFC reader infrastructure and can be used to pay for any kind of NFC Tag linked service or item. This is still a pilot test program but has connections with the Cloud Suica system JR East is planning to roll out.

JRE has also been testing MaaS solutions using QR Codes instead of NFC Tags with their Ringo Pass app for Saitama. The pilot project is covered in the NFC Forum article JR East Railway And NFC Propelling The MaaS Revolution. A 2nd MaaS pilot project has been announced for Sendai. An interesting side note here is that the old card reader+Windows+plastic Suica card Suica Internet web shopping service is going away this year, the final plug is due to be pulled by September 2020. We should be hearing about NFC Tag Suica in 2021.

NFC Tags and App Clips level the playing field with QR
One of the ways PayPay and other QR Code players disrupted the Japanese market so quickly was leveraging the low entry point bar of static QR codes combined with mobile smartphone apps. All stores need is an official QR Code sticker. Small merchants are freed from having to invest in POS hardware to go cashless.

NFC Tags eliminate the cost advantage of QR and level the playing field. Combined with the capabilities of iOS 14 App Clips, they become a killer app:

The pieces appear to fit very nicely now: the NFC background tag sheet pops-up ‘while the screen is on’, the right code snippets load in for a simple focused task, the user can Sign In with Apple ID if needed, and pay with Apple Pay. Simple, uncluttered action; no apps, no Safari launch. And we have background NFC tag reading on every current iPhone model.

MaaS Suica wrapped up in new technologies like App Clips and background tag reading iPhone has the potential to take the Suica eMoney payment platform to a whole new level. Success depends on how aggressively JRE promotes the service and how they license it to sister transit card operators. It would be great if we got MasS Suica, MaaS ICOCA etc. working seamlessly as a single mobile payment just like transit cards do now.

Cloud Suica for more mobile
Super Suica, the card, and Mobile Suica aim to deliver more services, such as the renewed and expanded Eki-Net coming in 2021, a lower cost internet based cloud infrastructure while keeping the great thing about Suica: super fast secure offline transactions and interoperability.

Based on what JRE has said over the past 2 years in the press and in recent company announcements, it seems we’ll have 4 basic versions of Suica: (1) Hard-wire Suica (what we have now) for major stations and stores, (2) Cloud Suica, lower cost cloud based fare processing for transit gates that cover rural stations not currently on the Suica map, this cloud backend is also expected to power closed loop QR code ticketing (3) MaaS NFC Tag Suica powered by the Suica Cloud backend for reader-less App Clips-like mobile payments, (4) Licensed Mobile Suica assets and card architecture for PASMO, ICOCA and other partners.

There will be 2 kinds of Super Suica partners:

  • Direct 2 in 1 partners host cards on Super Suica as outlined in 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate card program.
  • Indirect partners get the new Suica card architecture, New FeliCa OS improvements, Mobile Suica IT assets and wireless Suica gate system technology. The arrangement will be similar Mobile PASMO who licensed Mobile Suica IT assets but run their own cloud service with their own backend mobile recharge, commuter passes and reward points.
Apple Pay PASMO will be coming to Apple Pay with the iOS 14 update

Mobile PASMO was first announced in January 2020, launched on Android Osaifu Keitai in March and Apple Pay PASMO with arrive with the iOS 14 update this fall. 9 months is a quick turnaround for announcing and launching an entirely new mobile transit service across 2 digital wallet platforms: Android (Osaifu Keitai) and iOS/watchOS Apple Pay. This speedy rollout was possible because Mobile PASMO is rebranded Mobile Suica cloud assets.

Think of Mobile PASMO as a trial run for the major transit card players following the same strategy and launching Mobile ICOCA, Mobile TOICA, etc., starting in 2021. Next generation Super Suica won’t be a slam dunk national transit card that does it all, but it will be start line towards that goal in a race that has already started: a new foundation of shared infrastructure and services with transit companies working toward a cohesive de facto standard that has lots of mobile potential.

In these COVID challenged times all transit companies are under enormous pressure to reduce redundant infrastructure, streamline and bury old grudges. The current situation will drive Super Suica and mobile uptake as the payoff is more mobile services with reduced operating costs. Another case of COVID driven ‘unfortunate success’. I remain hopeful that, in the end, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.


UPDATES

Transit Gate Evolution: tap speed matters more than ever in the COVID era

As COVID restrictions are eased and the world slowly goes back to work, school and hopefully slightly more normal life, avoiding crowds will be key in keeping COVID from becoming resurgent in the months ahead.

For commuters in Japanese metro areas avoiding crowds is no easy matter. Fortunately the Japanese transit gate infrastructure is a great help. FeliCa based IC transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) with fast transaction speeds combined with open gate flap design maximizes people flow: people walk through gates at normal pace. This is very important for Japanese stations that have to make do with large crowds in limited spaces and narrow gate areas.

It’s wrong however, to think that this only applies to Japan. The benefits of fast tap speed combined with intelligent transit gate design are relevant everywhere and very necessary in this day and age: fast gate tap speed is essential in keeping gate crowding at a minimum. It makes things safer not only for train operation, but also addresses crowd control health concerns in the COVID era.

A reader sent a link to a good discussion of NFC protocols and gate tap speeds that was apparently deleted when YouTube comments were turned off. I retyped the comment in the section below from a screenshot with some light editing for clarity. If I find the author I will link to the original. The videos have already appeared in other posts but it’s good have them in one place. A previous installment already covered QR transit code gate issues, this post will focus on NFC tap speeds.


While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this following video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit:

It may seem like a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, tap times really matter.

Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa. A comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan below:

Open Loop NFC ticketing in its current form is based on EMVCo Contactless specifications adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec. All of these use ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro where normal walking speed is never supported.

But as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes. Here are walk flow comparisons for Tokyo and London, and MTA OMNY Open Loop performance:

Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki tests OMNY transit gate speed…
and reliability

As the videos make clear, tap speed is the most important part of the total package that makes a transit gate, from NFC sensor and antenna communication distance, to fare processing transaction software to physical barrier design. Be it an antiquated turnstile, a sliding panel, or a flap. A key reason for the ultra fast performance of JR East gates is Suica speed coupled with a larger antenna area plus the barrier-less transit gate design that doesn’t impede walk flow.

EMV is payment technology created for leisurely supermarket checkout, not whizzing through transit gates at rush hour. It doesn’t address the needs of transit and never will in its current format because it is tailored for, and controlled by credit card companies. One example is that EMVCo certification requires a small antenna communication distance, as in store reader communication distance. This is to prevent EMV skimming out in the wild, but the restriction doesn’t make sense for transit gates which operates in a controlled settings.

One hopes the NFC Forum works to increase NFC speeds and global specifications to “improve the overall user experience for NFC users,” because all NFC flavors are capable of delivering FeliCa-like speed, in theory but the truth is in the tap. Improving the NFC user experience is what it is all about and what the NFC Forum can do. With the addition of Ultra Wideband to Mobile FeliCa and Mobile MIFARE it is time for the NFC Forum partners to revisit the global NFC ISO 14443 and ISO 18092 specifications.

NFC Forum partners need create a single faster more reliable NFC standard encompassing NFC A-B-F and other wireless technologies, a new standard that improves and expands the NFC user experience on mobile devices for transit, digital identity keys and payments, while making it all future-proof.

Related
Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Suck for Transit?

iOS 13.4: Apple Pay Suica making way for Mobile PASMO?

The iOS 13.4 update adds a few interesting UI tweaks to Wallet and Suica. On the performance front iOS 13.4 Apple Pay Suica is the same level of stability we’ve seen on every release since iOS 12.3. The UI for Suica commuter pass has changed slightly with more detail in a separate window-let just below Suica balance/recharge. The commute pass renew button is gone too, but I’m pretty sure it re-appears during the 2 week renew period. I’ll update when confirmed.

I missed a change in the beta: the JP Wallet blurb has been updated slightly too. The Suica mention has been replaced with a generic ‘Transit IC card’. This change is very interesting in light of the recent Mobile PASMO Android release. It could be a sign that Mobile PASMO will be coming to Apple Pay before iOS 14….whenever that is.

Update: some readers have questioned whether this is just a change to bring different region Wallet blurbs in line with each other. Apple Pay Wallet for Hong Kong, for example, added ‘Travel Cards” in iOS 13.0 even though Apple Pay Octopus has yet to appear. But region differences are still there: transit IC cards, travel cards, transit cards. Suica has massive brand recognition in Japan. Apple has leveraged the Suica brand at every opportunity and would not swap it for generic wording lightly, not without a very good reason: more transit IC cards. There is also timing. Mobile PASMO started service March 18, just as iOS 13.4 GM was going out to developers. If it was just a text change, Apple would have done this earlier with the iOS 13.0 debut.

Mobile PASMO Q&A

What is Mobile PASMO?
Mobile PASMO is an app service identical to Mobile Suica, for Android v6 Osaifu Keitai devices or later, and iPhone 8 / Apple Watch 3 and later running iOS 14 / Watch OS 7 later this year. Users can recharge a virtual PASMO card on the device with a registered credit card, purchase or renew commute plans, view use history, restore the PASMO card from the cloud in case of a lost device, PASMO bus transit users can also earn ‘Bus Toku’ points. Details are listed on the Mobile PASMO site (Japanese only).

Is it compatible with Google Pay? (Updated)
Not at this time. Users need to be careful: active Google Pay blocks Mobile PASMO transactions. Bank cards are limited to Mobile PASMO app registered credit cards: American Express, JCB, Mastercard, Visa. Credit card registration is processed by PASMO and seems to be the weakest part of the system where users are experiencing the most trouble (the rest of the system appears to be licensed Mobile Suica IT assets). Only Japanese issue cards are accepted.

Is the Mobile PASMO app multi-lingual? (Updated)
Everything is Japanese language only. Android users can download the Mobile PASMO app on Google Play.

Can I use Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device? (Updated)
Only 6 recent Osaifu Keitai Type 1 devices support multiple transit card installs. On older Type 2 devices you can only install one and have to choose. As FeliCa Dude explains in his excellent Reddit post, “Mobile PASMO: the “me-too” that’s all about them, and not you” the Mobile FeliCa Android stack on older FeliCa chip devices isn’t like Apple Pay and does not support multiple transit cards or the ability to select one for Express Transit. Type 1 devices updated to Osaifu Ketai 8.2.1 can set one (and only one) ‘main card’ for Express Transit use, with Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO on the same device. A full downloadable PDF device list of Type 1 (Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO), Type 2 (Mobile Suica or Mobile PASMO), Type 3 (Mobile Suica).

If Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO are basically the same, does it matter which one I use?
It all comes down to commuter pass use, if you live in the Suica/PASMO region and use a JR East line on any part of your commute, Mobile Suica is the best choice that gives you the most options on Apple Pay and Google Pay. If you do not ride a JR East line as part of your commute, you must choose Mobile PASMO for commuter pass use.

When will PASMO be available on Apple Pay? (Updated)
Apple Pay PASMO launched October 6.

Isn’t next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Suica supposed to fix this redundancy? (Updated)
Mobile PASMO throws cold water on the one big happy mobile transit family concept of next generation Suica: sharing resources instead of “me too” fiefdoms. Even if the new card architecture fixes all the current shortcomings, which it is supposed to do, nothing can fix the selfish mindset of transit companies who refuse to cooperate. As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is the result of JR East and PASMO Association failing to cooperate and mutually host commute plans.

UPDATE: Japanese programmers digging into Mobile PASMO details find that PASMO licensed Mobile Suica IT assets for Mobile PASMO service. This makes a lot of sense and is an encouraging sign that Mobile Suica cloud resources will be licensed to host other transit IC cards for Mobile ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, etc.

UPDATE 2: Junya Suzuki posted an article with more Mobile PASMO system details. One leading company in the PASMO Association (Tobu, Keio or Odakyu) licensed Mobile Suica assets and technology from JR East. Cut and paste IT. As said above, this is encouraging because other transit companies (JR West, JR Central et al) can license Mobile Suica assets and park it on whatever cloud service they want: AWS, Azure, NTT Data and so on. Mobile plumbing for connecting Apple Pay and Google Pay is already in place.

Transit Cards on Mobile

Transit cards on mobile devices first appeared in 2006 with the launch of Mobile Suica, the world’s very first comprehensive transit card on mobile service. With the arrival of digital wallet platforms from Apple, Google and Samsung in 2015, mobile transit cards have gradually become widely available outside of Japan. The first mobile transit card on Apple Pay was Suica in 2016.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on embedded secure element (eSE) mobile digital wallets by service launch year. Entries are limited to native transit cards defined as reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit agencies. Open Loop service is not listed. The chart is best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorDigital WalletNFCProtocol
2006
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015
TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017
Beijing
Shanghai Transit
ChinaBMAC
SPTCC
Apple PayAPBOC 2.0
2018
iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE 2GO
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019
HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE 2GO
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE 2GO
NavigoParisÎle-de-France MobilitésSamsung PayBCalypso
2020
ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
Mobile SuicaTokyoJR EastGarmin PayFMobile FeliCa
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple PayFMobile FeliCa
TAPLAMETRO/CubicApple PayAMIFARE
Apple Pay PASMOTokyoPASMOApple PayFMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple PayAEMV
2021
FebruaryClipperBay AreaMTA/CubicApple PayAMIFARE
MayClipperBay AreaMTA/CubicGoogle PayAMIFARE
MayVentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle PayAEMV

Mobile transit card protocol overview
The current lineup of transit card payment mobile protocols are

  • FeliCa
  • MIFARE
  • PBOC 2.0/3.0
  • Calypso

As explained in detail below, FeliCa and Calypso are the fastest protocols, MIFARE is in the middle and PBOC, the Chinese variant of EMV, is the slowest of the protocols, as EMV was originally designed for leisurely supermarket checkout not rush hour transit gates. Transit has special needs for fast fare processing at the gate to keep people moving and operations safe. In theory all protocols can process transactions at more or less the same speed, but the reality of NFC+protocol OS integration+antenna and gate design is that there are big differences. The truth is in the tap. Here is a rundown of the technologies and real life tap times.

While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit.

It may be a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate (comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan) and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, taps times really matter. Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa.

Open Loop NFC ticketing (in its current form, EMVCo Contactless specifications are adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec and uses the ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro is never supposed but as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes.

YouTube comment explaining the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada), edited for clarity

Japan and China have de facto national transit card standards. Japan has Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc., which share the same basic architecture that gradually evolved from 2001 into the mutual compatible Transit IC interoperability standard in 2013. PBOC 2.0 China T-Union is a Chinese Ministry of Transport initiative for interoperable transit cards on plastic and mobile, managed by Beijing China Communications Gold Card Technology that started in 2015, cards are prepaid Union One issue. With the rollout, China T-Union replaced existing MIFARE and FeliCa based mainland China transit cards.

The interesting thing about the latter is that many Greater Bay Area transit cards were FeliCa based cards and users really noticed the difference when China weeded out and replace them with the slower PBOC 2.0 powered China T-Union cards:

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <PBOC 2.0 China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong

The slower China T-Union speed is one factor driving the popularity of QR codes for transit in China: there isn’t any speed difference between the two so most people choose AliPay and WeChat Pay for the convenience of reward points, campaigns and more services.

This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Mobile transit cards vs Open Loop
Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS and now Garmin Pay Suica. MIFARE has a shorter history on mobile. PBOC 2.0/3.0 is basically new. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay.

The biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards with cash or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient the card is.

These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are some 257 China T-Union transit card compatible transit authorities already on mobile? The answer: Open Loop.

Blame the slow mobile transit card rollout on open loop
Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London, Transport for NSW and New York MTA have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as their mobile solution instead of hosting native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce costs for both fare collection and plastic card issue. The downside is that open loop support adds a layer of complexity and cost that stymies native digital transit card support. As with all transit agencies that are run by, or receive movement funds, resources are limited, choices have to be made as to which mobile transit solutions receive funding. The end result is that precious system development funds are spent on EMV open loop development with native transit card mobile support a secondary priority, if at all.

However open loop cannot cover all fare options as bank cards were not designed for transit. This is why Oyster, Opal and Ventra have had to keep good old stored value plastic MIFARE cards around for fares that don’t fit in the ‘one size fits all’ open loop box. To address this shortcoming Cubic has created a new mobile transit solution: closed loop EMV bank cards for digital wallets.

Cubic’s very first mobile transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is the world’s first EMV closed loop transit card. It’s basically a Mastercard debit card with an account candy wrapped as a Ventra digital card. This same configuration is being tested for digital Opal. As closed loop EMV transit cards are bank card account based schemes, they still come with all the EMV on transit shortcomings, bank managed accounts, slow transaction speed, poor user feedback at the transit gate, etc. Because of the EMV open loop/closed loop priority, native transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle.

China T-Union: centralized straightjacket for mobile
The large deployment of PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union cards on mobile has been cited as proof that it’s ‘better’ at mobile than FeliCa and MIFARE, but the reality has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware. It is all about the Ministry of Transport China T-Union card nationwide standard managed by a single entity: Beijing China Communications Gold Card Technology (BCCGCT) using prepaid Union One issue for plastic and digital issue:

  • All China T-Union cards have a single recharge backend provided by UnionPay via BCCGCT. It’s the reason why China T-Union only support UnionPay recharge and sport a similar logo with local transit agency branding. It’s all one package.
  • China T-Union digital cards on mobile have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. Local transit agency transit card apps are intentionally crippled and do not support any NFC transfer features, Apple Support pages do not mention plastic card transfer.

Eliminating plastic card transfers reduces management overhead and the UnionPay recharge backend shared by all transit cards issued by the same company makes it simple as BCCGCT runs everything. The various local transit operators simply plug into it. They don’t have to host anything or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because UnionPay runs the payment network. China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card run by a single government run enterprise monopoly that’s a streamlined straitjacket.

Every country and region has their own priorities and services for local transit, as it should be. My position is a simple one: one size does not and should not fit everyone. A transit platform business model can be adapted to local regions and business conditions for long term sustainable transit in the mobile payments age.