JR Transit Ides of March 2021

March is the traditional month for transit companies to rollout new schedules and services. March 2021 is an exceptionally busy one with many updates, here are the important ones.

March 1
JR East Suica Repeat Transit Point Service (Suica/Mobile Suica): make the same trip 10 times a month earn a free trip in JRE POINT.

March 4
Mobile Suica for Fitbit Charge 4 launch.

March 6
JR Central EX-Press Reserve and SmartEX Shinkansen eTickets reservation system updates: EX-Press Reserve gains Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, TOICA, ICOCA, etc.) support and both EX systems gain group ticket purchases for Transit IC and QR Code paper ticket pickup.

March 13
New Cross Region Commuter Passes (plastic Suica/TOICA/ICOCA only): JR Group companies extend transit region commute pass region boundaries inside their respective regions for easier cross region Shinkansen commuting.

JR East Suica station admission fee (aka platform tickets) for Suica, Mobile Suica•PASMO and Transit IC cards.

ICOCA transit area expansion: JR West expands ICOCA coverage with Fukuchiyama, Kisei and Kansai line additions going online March 13, 2021. The Kisei and Kansai line additions incorporate on-board readers for tap-in and tap out.

New schedules with reduced operating hours, with fewer early and late trains go into effect.

March 15
JR East Commuter Suica Off Peak Point Service (Suica/Mobile Suica): JRE POINT rewards for off peak commuting.

March 20~21
Special Mobile Suica service maintenance and update: Mobile Suica gets an upgrade on the backend to support new versions of Android Mobile Suica/iOS Suica. Most of the new features are for Android but iOS Suica App will get improvements too. Mobile Suica users will be required to enter account ID and password with the app update. Make sure you have that information ready or update/reset passwords before the Mobile Suica 20 hour service maintenance downtime 11 am March 20 to 7 am March 21.

March 21
Almost last but not least we have the first ‘Super’ Suica 2 in 1 region transit card launch: totra for Tochigi prefecture.

March 27
The last item is Suica 2 in 1 region transit card launch #2:  Iwate Green Pass that covers Iwate Kotsu bus lines.

Multiple Secure Element domains for Mobile FeliCa 4.1

FeliCa Dude posted a series of deeply interesting tweets relating to Mobile FeliCa 4.1 changes. He had earlier complained of Mobile PASMO lack of Pixel 5 support and it now appears that multiple Secure Element domain support in Mobile FeliCa 4.1 was a reason for that delay. This is an fascinating development but what is it there for?

On a Mobile FeliCa 4.1 Google Pixel device Google has it’s own secure element domain

I assume his tweeted profile is for a Pixel device, hence the FeliCa Networks secure element (SE) + Google SE references. In this context it appears that Google ‘owns’ the Mobile FeliCa SE and which applets load, in other works FeliCa Networks needs permission from Google to load applets on a Google device SE. Devices come pre-loaded as always so customers simply use it out of the box, but the implication is that FeliCa Networks and the SE domain ‘owner’ can load/delete Java Card applets and even update Mobile FeliCa over the air. Whether they actually use this functionality or not is another story.

FeliCa Dude thinks multiple secure element domains are also there to support Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) plans for a digital version of My Number Card (Individual Number Card) for smartphones using the Mobile FeliCa eSE, even though the current plastic card uses NFC-B. It’s strange but exciting to ponder the possibilities of a Mobile FeliCa 4.1 secure element that supports non-FeliCa protocols.

One of the big changes of Mobile FeliCa 4.0 was that it introduced loading a FeliCa applet on any approved secure element. This change frees Android device manufacturers from having to purchase FeliCa chips from the FeliCa Networks supply chain. It basically gives Android devices the same custom secure element arrangement Apple has had since the iPhone 7 Apple Japan Pay launch in 2016.

I asked FeliCa Dude if the Mobile FeliCa 4.1 development is also related to next generation FeliCa feature support used for Suica 2 in1 cards coming this month, in particular the new Extended Overlap Service. He says this is unlikely but I hope we discover other pleasant surprises as intrepid explorers dig into Mobile FeliCa 4.1 details.

MIC digital My Number Card proposal for smartphones

End of the line for Suica and the native Japan Transit IC smartcard standard?

There is a consistent theme among some Japanese tech journalists: the native Japan Transit IC smartcard system is obsolete and destined for that fabled junk heap, the Galapagos island of over-engineered irrelevant Japanese technology. The arguments always boil down to cited higher costs of maintaining the ‘over-spec’ proprietary FeliCa based inflexible transit IC architecture in face of ‘flexible, lower cost’ proprietary EMV contactless bank payment tap cards and smartphone digital wallets used for open loop transit. Is Suica really ‘over-spec’ or is it clever stealth marketing sponsorship from EMVCo members and the bank industry disguised as journalism? Logically the same argument applies to proprietary MIFARE smartcard transit systems as well but is never mentioned, presumably because it was invented in Europe instead of Japan.

Despite all the digital ink on the subject I have yet to see a single article where said costs are actually shown and compared. Smartcard deposit fees are a standard way to offset plastic issue costs and Japanese transit companies like to earn interest off the float of card deposits and unused stored value. But this is never discussed nor the fact that digital wallet issue is free of hardware costs.

Bank payment cards and smartcards have very different business models. EMVCo members and their card issuers can hide associated hardware and licensing costs in bank transaction fees that NXP, FeliCa Networks and other smartcard technology solution providers cannot. Without hard numbers we can only take journalist claims at face value, that transit smartcards are not smart at all, but expensive obstacles to lower cost open loop centralization nirvana.

I don’t buy the ‘one solution fits all’ argument and neither should you. One constant issue in our internet era is that too much centralization is not only a technology monoculture security risk, cloud services fail, and cloud centralization is abused to limit human rights. As speech is censored on SNS platforms and online profiling is used to limit freedom of travel with politically biased no fly lists, it is inevitable that face recognition transit gates will be used to track people and implement ‘no ride’ or ‘limited ride’ policies. These are issues that people must be aware of in the relentless rush towards online centralization of transit payments and services.

Nevertheless there are articles with valid criticisms well worth reading. I ran across one recently by Masanoya Sano on Nikkei that asks a good question: ‘Does taking 14 years to deliver Mobile PASMO mean the transit IC card foundation is crumbling? While I don’t agree with everything Sano san says he makes a good case that Japan Transit IC association members are failing in the face of a hydra-headed crisis: declining population with less ridership, competition from other payment services such as PayPay and EMV based VISA Touch, and ridership killing COVID lockdowns. He argues that transit companies must fix some basic problems if the Japan IC Transit standard is to survive:

  • Increase coverage: get all transit on the Transit IC card service map
  • Go mobile: for all transit cards
  • Improve the transit IC card architecture: improve compatibility and loosen up current restrictions for cross region transit, and the ¥20,000 stored fare limit

I believe most, if not all of these can be addressed with next generation FeliCa + 2 in 1 Suica (aka Super Suica) launching this year and deeper payment infrastructure sharing between transit companies. Nothing is guaranteed of course but here’s a look at each category and possible solutions.

Coverage
The transit IC coverage gap is the biggest failure of Japanese transit companies and there are big gaps. Suica only covers major population areas in Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai, roughly half of the stations on JR East are not wired for Suica. A similar situation applies to the other JR Group companies. JR East has promised to get their entire rail network on Suica with a simplified lower cost cloud based Suica in the 2020 fiscal year ending March 2021 but has yet to announce any details (they are specifically referenced in the new Suica Terms and Conditions effective March 27).

On the plus side JR West is expanding ICOCA coverage with a light rail approach of incorporating NFC readers installed in the train car for tap in/tap out for unmanned stations. No wires. SMBC and VISA use the same strategy for their VISA Touch transit boutique marketing program. It’s a practical low cost strategy for lightly traveled rural lines that reduces the hard wire requirement. Only stations that need it get wired and even those installations can use the lower cost JR East cloud based system.

JR West ICOCA area expansion includes on train NFC readers starting March 13, 2020

All major transit companies need to install these lower cost solutions to fill the transit IC gaps and integrate remaining isolated regions. VISA Touch transit boutiques are marketed as a solution for inbound and casual users, but these EMV only installation leave those transit areas off the transit IC grid for regular users and don’t work for wider area travel.

Mobile
Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO combined represent 80% of the current transit IC card market. Mobile ICOCA (JR West) is due to launch in 2023. There is no word yet about mobile for TOICA (JR Central), manaca (Nagoya City Transit rail/bus), PiTaPa (Kansai region private rail/bus), Kitaca (JR Hokkaido), Sugoca (JR Kyushu), nimoca (Nishitestsu), Hayaken (Fukuoka City Transit). This is a big challenge but the borrowed Suica infrastructure used for Mobile PASMO is a strategy that can be applied to the other major cards.

Improving Transit IC
JR East is releasing the 2 in 1 Suica card architecture that incorporates new FeliCa OS features the most important being the “2 cards in 1” Extended Overlap Service. New regional transit card using this new FeliCa OS and Suica format are launching this month in Aomori, Iwate and Utsunomiya. The next challenge for JR East is expanding 2 in 1 Suica to existing and important region transit cards inside the JR East transit region such Niigata Kotsu Ryuto and Sendai City Transportation Bureau icsca. The JR Group has cooperated to deliver cross region commuter passes which started in

The ultimate long term success of the Japanese Transit IC systems depends on infrastructure sharing and integration. For this to happen other JR Group companies and private rail outside of the JR East regions have to incorporate the 2 in 1 Suica format and improvements for their own cards and regions. Only when all Transit IC Mutual Use Association members are using the new format can they link and combine services in new ways, and add new features such as raising the stored fare card value above the current ¥20,000 limit.

Will it be enough? I have no idea. Immediately I see problems for the Kansai region PiTaPa card association companies (Hankyu, Hanshin, Keihan, Kintetsu, Nankai) as they have to make fundamental changes to use the new card format. I don’t see a Mobile PiTaPA in its current incarnation and this is why SMBC (who run PiTaPa card accounts) and VISA are targeting the Kansai area for VISA Touch transit: non-JR Kansai transit companies have their backs against the wall and no way easy forward to mobile except for going all in with JR West Mobile ICOCA, or taking what SMBC offers them.

Open Loop competition
Kansai area private rail companies never managed to create the equivalent of PASMO. PiTaPa is a postpay card that has credit card issue checks and cannot be purchased at station kiosks like all other transit cards for casual use. Issue is limited, so Kansai transit companies issue JR West ICOCA commuter passes for people who can’t use credit cards. This is the context surrounding the SMBC VISA Touch transit for Nankai announcement that got lots of press attention as the first major test deployment of open loop on a Japan Transit IC card system.

Junya Suzuki’s latest Pay Attention installment has a deep dive on the VISA Touch Japanese open loop transit system solution powered by QUADRAC Q-CORE server technology. It is the solution also used for the Okinawa Yui Rail monorail fare system that integrates Suica/Transit IC and QR support. He argues that open loop EMV is good enough because, (1) we don’t need the over-spec FeliCa 200 millisecond (ms) transaction speed (it’s actually faster, between 100~150 ms), (2) it has a leg up on future MaaS and cloud integration. Holding onto Suica local transaction performance as ‘faster/better’ is a myth holding back progress.

I have tremendous respect for Suzuki san and his work but his arguments fall down for me here. He completely ignores the white elephant in the room: closed loop is here to stay because the open loop model cannot support all fare options. Even on the open loop systems that he champions, Oyster and Opal for example, closed loop cards are still essential and are transitioning to a closed loop EMV model for digital wallet issue. The only change is the closed loop card transition from MIFARE to EMV because bank partners are running the transit system account system backend instead of the transit company. In other words it has nothing to do with technology at all, it is bank system convenience. Bank convenience is what it all boils down to.

Making the right technology choices are essential in our era of limited resources, ride the right horse and you succeed. I want to believe the cloud holds the promise to extend transit IC to low transit volume rural areas that don’t have it now, but every time I use a slow cloud based stera payment terminal I’m reminded how impractical that approach is for stations with high transit volume.

Does it make cost sense to replace the current transit IC system and re-create it with EMV open loop when Opal, Oyster and OMNY systems will always need closed loop cards? The practical thing is leveraging a good system already in use. Upgrade the Japan Transit IC system we have now, spend precious resources that fix current limitations and extend it with new technologies like UWB Touchless.

The strength and weakness of the Japan Transit IC standard is that it’s not top down but based on mutual cooperation. It’s not one entity but association members have to move forward as if they are one. JR East has been the technology leader and is working to improve and share it at lower cost. 2021 is not the make or break year for Japan Transit IC, but it will be an important and challenging one that will set its future direction.

Related post: The 2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate Card

The good old Japan Transit IC card mutual use map, all the little one way arrows marked with the ‘IC’ logo pointing outside the main IC area indicate transit system compatibility.

Suica comes to Fitbit Charge 4 on March 4 (updated)

UPDATE: Mobile Suica for Fitbit Charge 4 launches March 4

JR East announced Suica on FitBit Charge 4 service starting in March 4, just before the March 13 Suica transit tweaks go into effect. It’s exactly the same Mobile FeliCa Cloud powered package used for Garmin Pay Suica and wena Suica services that launched in 2020, with the same limitations: no plastic card transfers, no commuter pass support, credit card recharge limited to Google Pay.

These limitations are not deal breakers. With many company people teleworking during the COVID crisis there is less need for commuter passes. For users who want the complete Mobile Suica service on a wearable, Apple Watch is still the only game in town. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition for many Android users in Japan.

The Fitbit JP page has a few Suica details. It appears to be a Japan model only device, not a global NFC device…and only the black model support Suica. It’s too early to tell if this development has anything to do with Google finally closing the Fitbit acquisition or if this is the first step towards supporting major FeliCa payment services like iD, QUICPay, Waon, etc. Robust seamless global NFC support across Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be the first real challenge to Apple Pay Suica on iPhone and Apple Watch.

SEIYU Stores finally add NFC payment support for Apple Pay Suica • PASMO

That didn’t take long. The announcement Walmart was selling majority control of SEIYU over to KKR and Rakuten was made November 16. And what was the first new management move? Adding Suica and Transit IC payment support which means Apple Pay Suica • PASMO and Google Pay Suica can finally, finally be used for paying at checkout. QR Code PayPay has been in place for awhile already. SEIYU also rolled out a new system recently for self checkout and EMV IC chip payments for SEIYU brand Saison cards (other cards have to be signed…yuck). NFC anything has been entirely missing from the SEIYU payments lineup despite the COVID crisis and a huge push for all things cashless, but Walmart has a long antagonistic history with NFC digital wallet payments.

I only noticed the change this evening when I heard the store announcement over the PA. Sure enough Suica signs were plastered at every checkout. It’s weird but somehow fitting that SEIYU is soft launching long overdue NFC contactless payments with Suica. More will come. I’m sure Walmart leaving town had nothing to do with it. Yeah, nothing at all. SEIYU stores were much better under the pre-Walmart Seibu management. Hopefully this marks a return to better service and clean modern stores.