Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop card

Apple Pay Ventra finally launched October 26, 2020, a very long wait after the March 25, 2019 Apple Event announcement. I wrote about the delay blaming it on open loop when the Washington SmarTrip and LA TAP cards landed on Apple Pay first.

Ventra has a long glitchy open loop history from its debut with the ill-fated Mastercard debit Ventra. Streets Blog had this to say about it in 2017.

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
A $2 fee for a paper statement
A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies

“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

StreetsBlog Chicago December 2017

Getting Ventra out of the bank card business is easier said than done when the whole system is designed around open loop. Mastercard stopped issuing Ventra branded prepaid debit cards in 2017 but they have managed Ventra account services all this time. The Ventra plastic card is MIFARE DESFire EV1 which fits the standard Cubic Transportation Systems management style: all of the various transit card systems they manage around the world were designed and built with MIFARE stored value cards at the core. These include Chicago Ventra, London Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington SmarTrip, LA TAP, etc.

An Apple Pay Ventra Wallet screenshot from a Japanese Twitter user revealed a fascinating bit of information. Apple Pay transit cards like Suica, SmarTrip and TAP all show a stored value card balance. Apple Pay Ventra does not, it shows a card number like a Wallet credit card. This means Apple Pay Ventra is a reincarnated Mastercard prepaid debit card, but this time it’s disguised as a mobile transit card with Mastercard running card account services.

Apple Pay Ventra: the closed open loop transit card
Tech blog coverage of the Apple Pay Ventra launch only mentioned Express Transit but there are important limitations:

  1. Ventra Card on iPhone 6S and later / Apple Watch Series 1 and later, can only be used on the CTA and Pace bus services, but not Metra or Pace Paratransit. RTA and Student Reduced Fare cards, including U-Pass cards, and free ride Ventra Cards cannot be added to Apple Wallet yet. (from StreetsBlog Chicago)
  2. Reload/Recharge in Wallet is not supported, you have to do it in Ventra App. This really sucks for Apple Watch Ventra users. In the United States only Apple Pay TAP and Apple Pay SmarTrip support Wallet recharge, interestingly those systems are closed loop.

We have the following pieces: open loop, Cubic fare system management, Mastercard managed Ventra account services, MIFARE for plastic cards , EMV for mobile digital cards with a closed reload/recharge model that limits everything from card issue and recharge to Ventra App, and slow tap speeds.

The result is a centralized account processing mishmash of open loop and closed loop parts, ‘heavy’ in every performance aspect that pales in comparison to the local stored value process speed and flexibility of a user friendly Apple Pay Suica•PASMO. The mishmash only works because only CTA fixed fares are transit gate ‘live’ in the system, distance based METRA fare are outside of the system with one time ticket purchases shown to the train conductor. Because everything is centralized account processing, all Ventra housekeeping must be done in the Ventra app unlike Apple Pay Suica•PASMO users who can live without an app or account: everything from recharge to card creation can be done in Wallet.

Simply put, Apple Pay Ventra is the digital rebirth of the problematic open loop based Mastercard Ventra prepaid debit card that is closed and only works on the Ventra system. The Sydney Opal card is about to enter digital wallet tests with Mastercard running the show with a similar set of Ventra pieces: Mastercard EMV issue for mobile, MIFARE plastic cards, Cubic management, etc. Expect similar results.

EMV transit cards: next installment of the Contactless Payment Turf Wars
If nothing else Apple Pay Ventra reveals how flimsy the ‘open loop is open’ argument really is: the Apple Pay Ventra prepaid debit card as transit card can only be used on the Ventra system. How open is that? All they did was swap MIFARE for EMV, neither of which are open. And tap speeds are slower than ever with EMV, aka the supermarket checkout protocol.

It’s fake debate. The real debate is online centralized fare processing where everybody is forced to have a mobile account whether they need it or want it or not, versus offline local fare processing where mobile accounts are optional. Guess which model delivers faster tap speeds while doing a better job of protecting your online privacy.

The 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 just too much private money to be made off of running the backend services attached to public infrastructure. And the bank card industry has no interest in improving their slow EMV supermarket checkout card spec for transit. Nobody in Sydney will bother asking who ends up getting the float interest from Opal cards when Mastercard runs the account backend. Card issuers like it that way.

The only question remaining is this: now that we know the Ventra EMV Mastercard prepaid debit card as mobile digital transit card is same one for mobile Opal…will it be the same for MTA mobile OMNY and TfL mobile Oyster? I suspect so: this is the new Cubic mobile transit card business model with NXP MIFARE the loser in this latest installment of the contactless payment turf wars.

UPDATE

A reader was kind enough to scan his Apple Pay Ventra card with a NFC tag reading app. Results confirmed what I outline above: Apple Pay Ventra is a EMV Mastercard prepaid debit disguised as a transit card. This officially marks a migration away from stored value MIFARE transit cards to stored in the cloud EMV prepaid debit cards for mobile digital transit card systems managed by Cubic.

Specifically it means the local stored value information that was held by the MIFARE plastic card has been migrated to an online Mastercard managed account for Apple Pay Ventra as the EMV credit card format wasn’t designed for local stored value. Just like the title says: Apple Pay Ventra is a closed open loop card.

Final Piece of the Puzzle

TfL has been trying to get rid of Oyster card for years. Sydney has been following London’s lead and just finished their rollout of EMV transit service with a press statement announcing that the, “final piece of the puzzle” is in place, Sydney can now kiss Opal goodbye.

But wait, what about EMV Express Transit for Apple Pay users, there is nothing about that. There’s also fine print saying that commuters still need Opal for concession discounts. And there is a surprise: getting Opal on Apple Pay and Google Pay appears to be on the NSW ‘to do’ list. London steadfastly refuses to add Oyster to mobile devices. It would be surreal if the Opal system gets the whole enchilada on mobile while TfL does not.

Sydney Opal expands EMV coverage, next stop: Apple Pay Express Transit

Transport for NSW is expanding open loop EMV bank card support on the Opal transit fare system to include buses next month in addition to implementing Opal fare caps and discounts on bank cards. The agency is encouraging transit users to move away from faster Opal cards (the woman zipping through the transit gate in the video clip 7 second mark is using an Opal card btw) to slower EMV on bank cards and smartphones that reduce in-house card operation expenses.

It’s exactly what Transport for London (TfL) has been doing for years to ween users away from Oyster. Both card fare systems are operated by Cubic, currently none of the Cubic operated transit card systems are natively hosted on Apple Pay, Chicago Ventra will be the first.

With the expansion of EMV support, Sydney should soon be joining the “Where you can use Apple Pay for transit without Express Transit mode” Apple Pay support list, with EMV Express Transit support coming sometime later.

iOS 12.3 Update and Apple Pay Transit Improvements

The iOS 12.3 update (currently 12.3.1 16F203) has important improvements for iPhone users in Japan and Apple Pay Transit users everywhere:

Reiwa Era Calendar Support
Reiwa Era is also supported in watchOS 5.2.1 and macOS 10.14.5

Improved Apple Pay Suica and Express Transit Performance
iOS 12.3 is the best iOS version for Apple Pay Suica and Express Transit cards that Apple has produced, period. This is the single most important feature for users in Japan. Previous Suica iOS performance issues are all gone: Suica balance not updating, unresponsive Suica UI, unresponsive Suica Recharge, etc. Longtime iPhone Suica users will be pleasantly surprised, as will Apple Pay HOP users. If for no other reason, update to iOS 12.3 for fast trouble free Apple Pay Express Transit performance.

EMV Express Transit Support
This is a new Apple Pay Wallet option for payment cards (bank cards) to be set for Express Transit on open loop transit systems that support the feature, only on Portland TriMet for now. The new Apple Express Transit support page explains payment card support. Reader feedback suggests payment card support is the usual mixed bag of bank card services limited by region issuers and issues. EMV transit is always slower at the gate than native transit cards, both plastic and virtual, and only supports standard fares.

The low key nature of this service addition is rather unusual. Lots of under the hood changes have been made in iOS 12.3 Wallet in advance of the Apple Card launch: EMV Express Transit support, the removal of long term beta status for Beijing and Shanghai Transit Cards, the huge leap in Express Transit performance, and much more. We’ll hear all about these developments along with new NFC features to be announced for iOS 13 Apple Pay Wallet at WWDC19.

Apple Pay Transit Support Page

Wallet UI Changes
Suica UI Wallet changes have been ongoing since iOS 12.2 and are still hit and miss. The UI has improved some from iOS 12.2: transaction detail running order has changed slightly to avoid long strings that are easy clipped in English. Unfortunately, important Suica settings are still too easy to miss. Users still have to dig around to find them. I hope Apple continues to improve the Wallet card UI in iOS 13. Here’s a look:

Other Stuff

Apple TV: the iTunes Japan Store does not offer TV content so the revamped TV App is just for playing downloaded movies and nothing more, at least until Apple TV+ service launches in Japan. Amazon Prime and Netflix are way ahead of Apple here and remain the top video streaming providers. It will be interesting to see what Apple comes up with.


Update: the iOS 12.4 update provides the same Express Transit performance and fixes as iOS 12.3

iOS 12.3 brings EMV Express Transit support to Apple Pay

*(Note: iOS 12.3 EMV Express Transit is only for Portland TriMet, updates and details here)

The short story
Text strings added in pass.json files enable new card options in the new Apple Card/Wallet UI to be unveiled at WWDC19. New PassKit functions to add Wallet card options directly instead of using apps, are some of the new Apple Pay features that Apple will promote at WWDC. Some new options such as EMV Express Transit also work on iOS 12.3 Wallet which has lots of new changes under the hood for Express Transit and Apple Card.

The long story
iOS 12.3 is an interesting Apple Pay update, an important one for Apple Pay Suica users and we have the new Apple Card and Wallet UI. The Tap Down Under site recently discovered an EMV Express Transit option as well. Beau Giles who runs Tap Down Under reported:

New strings discovered within the pass.json files of Apple Pay card files make mention of new ‘Transit Network Identifiers’ options, as well as new passUpgrades/open loop options – which would provide an equivalent solution for Apple Pay customers…
You’d be able to set your preferred EMV card (again, Visa, Mastercard or American Express) to use for ‘Express Transit’ – no need to authenticate, just tap your iPhone or Watch at an Opal reader.

Tap Down Under iOS 12.3 to bring EMV Express Transit support to Apple Pay

Nice find Beau!

The “equivalent solution” he mentions is the recently added Samsung Pay Transit Card feature for Sydney area Opal transit fare system. The user can select a regular EMV Samsung Pay bank card to use for transit without having to unlock the device or authenticate the card at an Opal transit gate.

What it is and what it isn’t

Let’s get this out of the way: this is not Suica Express Transit. As the new iOS 12.3 Wallet option explanation makes clear, there are transit cards and there are payment cards. It does not work like Suica or other transit cards whose entire transaction architecture is built on instantaneous prepaid self contained secure express transit settlement without network connections.

Apple Pay Suica works the same everywhere, while Samsung Transit Card is a special mode only for transit through Opal gates with regular old EMV everywhere else. It’s a workaround hack for a EMV weakness on smartphones that mimics transit smartcard operation, though it is much slower at the gate than native FeliCa and MIFARE smartcards (watch the video), and because EMV is not a smartcard, does not support different kinds of fare structures (commuter, senior, student, point to point, etc1).

The hack itself is less software technology than special arrangements between card companies, Transport for NSW and Samsung, that waive CVS checks for Samsung Pay designated Transit Cards at Opal transit gates. In some ways it’s a merchant arrangement like VISA, Mastercard, American Express letting poor old J.C. Penney keep mag strip card settlements on life support in exchange for switching off contactless payments. And just like J.C. Penney switched off Apple Pay, card companies can switch off EMV transit card support at any time without telling users.

Samsung’s strategy for Samsung Pay in Asia Pacific is an interesting one, using transit to gain ground where Apple Pay has not: Hong Kong Smart Octopus, Taiwan EasyPass, and EMV Transit Card for Opal. The Apple Pay Transit story picked up momentum with the Apple Pay HOP and Ventra Express Transit announcements in March, and Tim Cook’s recent mention of Apple Pay coming to MTA OMNY in early summer.

The strings that Beau found appeared on indicated that backend system support was already in place with card providers and Apple Pay iCloud servers in early May. The strings list iOS 12.3 and watchOS 5.2.1 as the minimal system requirements.

iOS 12.3 is out and both Apple Pay HOP transit card and EMV Express Transit is live for all Apple Pay users, but can only be used on Portland TriMet. That must sting for Sydney Opal transit users who were expecting to use the EMV service there, but it’s not surprising as Sydney transit isn’t listed in the Apple Pay Transit support page. Nevertheless it is an oddly low key rollout for a new Apple Pay service, Apple Pay support pages are the only place it is mentioned. My take is that we will get the full story at WWDC19 with the iOS 13 announcement, the new Apple Pay Wallet Card UI and other new PassKit functions for developers.

Downsides

A low key approach makes sense for Apple because EMV Express Transit is a service that bank card companies can switch it off at will. They ultimately control it, Apple does not. The feature does not magically work on any ‘open’ transit system because many moving pieces have to be tied down and in place before it can work: agreements between card companies, Apple and transit agencies, along with transit fare backend system support that in western countries is usually outsourced to large companies like Cubic or Thales.

iPhone XR/XS Express Transit with power reserve works with EMV transit but is a potentially confusing user experience: users will want to use it like a plastic payment card and forget that it’s only for transit. And because it removes a layer of security for cards tied to bank accounts, with no safety net like a transit prepaid card, EMV Express Transit will be a security concern for some users.

Summary

I have doubts how Apple can successfully market EMV Express Transit when it completely depends on various outside companies in various regions to work successfully. If anything goes wrong at the transit gate, and it will, Apple catches the blame, never the bank card company. What’s the marketing angle when even Samsung is not heavily promoting EMV Transit Card and how far can the service be extended to other transit systems?

I see this as just another round in the contactless payment turf wars so that card companies can extend their power and reach into transit, and sabotage the ISO/IEC 10373-6 specification, and GSMA/GCF (Global Certification Forum) TS. 26, TS. 27 specifications created by the NFC Forum and transit partners specifically for NFC transit settlements.

Personally I agree with @elevtechlift that EMV Express Transit is a ‘nice, but’ option. It sounds nice, but distracts everybody from the real job of improving transit service with better gates and innovating transit payment technology. Better for Apple to focus on innovating things they control: move Apple Pay forward with features like Express Card with power reserve on Apple Watch, and get developers to add more options and all kinds of NFC enabled cards to iOS 13 Wallet. Hacks that hide EMV weak points and play market politics by sabotaging ISO/IEC 10373-6, hacks that card companies can switch off at any moment, are a waste of time and resources. Improving EMV on transit is a job for EMVCo, not Apple.

At any rate, WWDC19 is shaping up to be an interesting show for all things Apple Pay.

UPDATE
Instead of writing a new post I rewrote this one a few times. EMV Express Transit is just one more Wallet card option. The heavy reworking of Wallet to make new options possible along with new Apple Pay features and Wallet UI for iOS 13 are the real story.