5G Contactless Payments Part 1: Fast QR vs Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE

Payment empire players envision a brave new world of 5G enhanced contactless payment solutions, seen in recent moves by JR East and other major Japanese transit companies to replace expensive legacy mag strip ticketing with lower cost QR Code ticketing. 5G flavored QR Code and ‘Touchless’ Ultra Wide Band (UWB) Mobile FeliCa solutions were also on display at last months Docomo Open House 2020. How can it be that Docomo is developing Ultra Wide Band Mobile FeliCa and QR Code solutions?

The endless push pull of ‘this contactless payment works great for me’ that drives somebody else crazy is endless fascinating. We have more choices than ever: digital wallets, plastic cards, face recognition, NFC, QR Codes, etc. 5G and UWB promise to mix things up even more.

Ultra Wide Band enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE Apple CarKey?
The evolution of EMV, FeliCa, MIFARE and other similar protocols as they transition from plastic smartcards to digital wallets devices opens up opportunities to include other radio technologies like Ultra Wide Band and Bluetooth in addition to NFC. Ultra Wide Band Touchless FeliCa on display at the Docomo Open House was all about cars, not Touchless walkthrough transit gates that will appear in a few years.

Touchless FeliCa makes great sense as a ‘NFC car key’ that utilizes UWB for operation at greater distance and better accuracy when needed. Touchless makes even more sense as a ‘keep phone in pocket’ touchless payment method for drive thru purchases. The addition of UWB into the mix makes smartcard protocols much more useful than just NFC. I would certainly welcome a smartphone UWB powered Touchless FeliCa replacement that ditches the need for automobile ETC cards and readers on Japanese expressways.

How UWB enhanced FeliCa would fit with Apple’s new CarKey feature said to be coming with iOS 13.4 is unknown but iPhone already supports FeliCa. UWB touchless support for iPhone 11 and later models is a logical evolution. Sony and Docomo are developing the technology with NXP which certainly means that MIFARE will also support UWB enhancements. The long history of FeliCa and MIFARE as keycard solution providers is a natural fit with Apple CarKey. NFC is the only protocol that has been discovered in iOS 13.4 beta CarKey framework so far but I would not be surprised if UWB code references turn up at some point.

5G Cloud vs Local Processing
The Docomo Open House also showcased a QR Code transit gate with 200 millisecond (ms) transaction processing but the real star was the speed of 5G. 5G powered cloud processing promises to upend the current advantage of locally processed prepaid stored value cards…cards like Suica.

The basic promise of 5G is that IT system designers finally achieve a nirvana of everywhere, always available, big pipe central processing without wires, the big cloud. The original Suica card design effort back in the 1980’s had to leverage local processing because central processing wasn’t up to the task of handling massive transaction volumes of a Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station at peak rush hour. This is why Suica cards are stored value by design, the FeliCa technology behind the card design delivers 200 ms and faster transaction times for local processing at the transit gate. What happens when 5G promises, in theory, to deliver 200 ms central processing?

Kill mag strip paper tickets first then Suica?
As Junya Suzuki points out in his article ‘Is QR the future of Suica?‘, transit QR Codes on the complex Japanese transit network only need be a unique local passkey with everything else, verification, transaction, etc., done in the 5G cloud. The same concept applies for facial recognition systems where the registered face is the unique local passkey. With the power and speed of 5G, Suzuki san argues that the need for Suica-like local processing falls away. In his scenario all Suica needs to be is a unique passkey that can lose stored value functions.

I understand his point, Suzuki san comes from an IT system background, as a journalist he has covered JP transit payment system developments for a long time. For low traffic stations a Suica-lite 5G cloud based network makes sense and does away with the expensive hard wired transit gates. Just one year ago JR East said they are building a cloud networked Suica to cover all non-Suica areas.

However the old Tokyo-Shinjuku-Ikebukuro station peak rush hour central processing crunch problem remains. I’m not convinced super fast 5G enabled cloud processing is going to solve that problem any better or cheaper than Suica does now, and reliability is a complete unknown. We also have the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format and FeliCa OS coming in the next 12 months, the design goals here include a flexible, modular cloud friendly architecture and lower costs. Next generation Suica coupled with a flexible local processing~cloud processing backend may be a compelling solution that finally delivers a practical inexpensive Suica infrastructure to the little end of the line station which only gets a few trains or buses a day.

New JR East Suica / QR Code transit gate for Takanawa Gateway station

JR East, Hanshin and Osaka Metro are testing QR Codes and facial recognition ID ticketing to replace mag strip paper. As Junya Suzuki points out, mechanical paper ticket transit gates are more expensive to install and maintain than IC transit card gates but the real expense is mag strip paper recycling costs. Mundane but not surprising. The more important long term question is this: do transit companies keep the current more expensive cash base paper ticket fare vs less expensive IC card fare structures in place, or do away with it when QR Codes replace mag strip tickets? I don’t think we’ll see an answer to that question for a few years.

There is no doubt that 5G will enable new payment possibilities, and a lot of debate. But I don’t see 5G cloud completely upending and replacing the need for local processing and stored value cards. Both are evolving, both have their place. It doesn’t have to be, and should not be a one size fits all solution. Each approach has strengths that can be complementary and build a better stronger system.

For me it comes down to one simple thing. My Apple Watch can be buried under multiple sleeve layers but Apple Pay Suica works great going through rush hour transit gates every time. It’s the best argument for UWB enhanced FeliCa and MIFARE touchless transit gates and stored value local processing I can think of. QR can never match that, nor can face recognition…think face masks during an epidemic or pollen season.

In the next installment I hope to explore 5G and the evolution of digital wallets.

Origami Pay folds into merpay

The overheated Japanese payments market kicked into consolidation mode with the Line Pay Pay Pay merger announcement last November. The next consolidation was announced today with the Origami Pay startup folding into the the merpay startup. The deal is expected to close by February 25. Now that a market shakeup is in full swing I think we can expect mergers for other smaller players like kyash before the Tokyo Olympics.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the merger of the QR Code Origami and NFC Apple Pay merpay. Perhaps we might end up with a flexible frontend solution like the recently released Toyota Wallet which combines both approaches. And it seems that the arrival of Toyota Wallet was a big factor that pushed the market into the consolidation cycle we are now witnessing. I just hope the backend is flexible too and not chained to a single banking empire. We shall see.

2019 Tidbits

The end of the year season is down for the count. Barring any news items like Apple Pay Octopus really launching this year, this is probably my last news post for 2019. No news really, just tidbits.

Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen transit cards coming to Apple Pay in 2020
This piece of news came from Twitter users noting that the Lingnan Pass will come to Apple Pay in 2020. The Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit pages show announcements released today (December 11), a machine translation roughly says Apple Pay support is coming soon. China has had the PBOC 2.0~3.0 contactless standard and T-Union transit card architecture in place for some time, with local transit cards being updated to the new format. Beijing and Shanghai transit cards arrived on Apple Pay with iOS 11.3. Additional China transit cards were tested in a early developer preview of iOS 11.4 but dropped before the beta. Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were labeled beta up until iOS 12.2. Apple Pay Lingnan Pass and ShenZhen Transit will likely follow the Beijing/Shanghai transit card model with bank card recharge limited to China Union Pay (Interesting side note: Octopus and Lingnan Pass have a dual mode transit card). If Tim Cook does visit Hong Kong and China on his trip, things might shape up to be an excellent Apple Pay transit card year end Asian adventure.

Tim Cook’s Excellent Asian Transit Adventure?
The Tim arrived unannounced in Tokyo a few days ago, his first public appearance here since September 2016 and the first public demo of Apple Pay Suica just before the service launch. With Tim’s arrival in Tokyo I noticed an odd uptick in views from Hong Kong. When Tim landed in Singapore, Hong Kong views ticked up again. Obviously Hong Kong iPhone users are hoping that Tim will visit Hong Kong and launch the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus. I hope so too. Update: Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit information is available to China mainland users after a long absence.

12/19 UPDATE: Apple Pay Octopus has been delayed to later in 2020.

1/8 UPDATE: Apple announces new transit cards for China but not Octopus

Apple Pay Ventra
This was promised as ‘coming later this year’ back in May. As of December 10 Ventra Twitter support is still promising users to “stay tuned.” Let’s hope Cubic is working overtime to make it happen. Update: Ventra has changed the Apple Pay Ventra blurb from ‘coming later this year’ to ‘coming soon,’ we’ll see Apple Pay Ventra in 2020.

JP POST going Cashless
This was announced some time ago but is worth repeating: Japan Post is going cashless starting February 2020 in select central post offices, rolling out to all branches by May 2020. Your favorite plastic credit cards, eMoney cards (iD, QUICPay, Suica, etc.) and QR Codes (The PayPayPay crowd) can be used to pay for postage, sending packages, stamps, postcards, catalog items, etc. It would be nice if cashless payments improve post office lines and wait times, but I guarantee that’s not going to happen.

Another week, another new JR East gate design

JR East sure has a lot of irons in the fire. We have Super Suica, the new eTicket system, the Touchless walkthrough gate, and now we have yet another new gate design mentioned in yesterday’s press event release for the new JR Takanawa Gateway station due to open in spring 2020.

This 2nd design is supposed to be wheelchair friendly with the Suica reader on the right hand side rather than on top. It’s not as wheelchair friendly as the touchless walkthrough gate and downright hostile for left hand Apple Watch users which Japanese users have tweeted and complained about.

And it has a QR Code reader on the front. Don’t hold your breath because it is only for “testing and evaluation” purposes in a new station with initial low passenger traffic. There are still one-off paper ticket variations without mag stripes that don’t work on the current Suica architecture or on ticket gates and have to be collected by a station agent.

Those low volume specialty tickets would fit well with QR Code as JR East migrates away from paper ticketing all together. Osaka Metro have said they plan to test other technologies such as face recognition. I have no idea if those systems will work any better than Face ID for face mask wearing hay fever and flu suffering transit users. It doesn’t sound fun.

The vague JR East press release wording, and the wheelchair specific design suggests these gates will not be universal at Takanawa Gateway station. They will probably be installed in the manned booth areas to free up station agents to deal with more important business.

Toyota Wallet: if there must be another Japanese Wallet app, please let it be this

As I have pointed out countless times on this blog, Apple Pay Suica is one of the best Apple Pay services that Apple has hosted on its platform so far. The first transit card on Apple Pay remains the best: it combines the speed of the Suica transit card FeliCa architecture, the convenience of the Mobile Suica cloud, and the flexibility of the Apple Pay recharge backend.

The Apple Pay Suica sandwich: an open flexible recharge backend, sandboxed stored value (i.e. not hot wired to an app account), NFC FeliCa frontend.

This last point is under appreciated. The deal Apple and JR East worked out is the secret sauce: Apple Pay cards in Wallet just work for recharge, from Japan or from abroad, with no extra fees across the board, users earn points for the card of their choice. And users still have the option to recharge with cash if they want to.

A new kind of Wallet app
Toyota Wallet for iOS unveiled on November 19 finally gets right what other QR/Bar Code apps like PayPay have not: a flexible backend matched with a flexible frontend. A version for Android is due in the spring of 2020.

Toyota Wallet is built using the PAYCIERGE platform from TIS. The user has a choice between payment with QR/Bar Code in the Toyota Wallet app with Origami Pay or Bank Pay accounts, or payment with a dual mode EMV/FeliCa iD Mastercard prepaid card in Wallet with the backend recharge hosted from Toyota Wallet.

An interesting side note here is that both PayPay and Line Pay have said that FeliCa cards are a possibility. Up until now this has just been lip service. It would be a welcome development if the Line Pay/Yahoo Japan merger produces a FeliCa/EMV dual mode payment option similar to what Toyota Wallet has done.

Toyota Wallet is still not open in the way that Apple Pay Suica is. All of the ‘recharge’ methods are in the SMBC orbit, even iD recharge credit cards have to be SMBC issue (such as Docomo dCard) Visa or Mastercard to avoid hefty recharge fees. It’s not perfect and remains chained to the SMBC financial ecosystem, but Toyota Wallet does point a way forward that I hope Toyota Finance Corp. continues to improve, and that other payment system operators follow.

Summary
The Toyota Wallet flexible backend/flexible frontend development is a step forward for digital wallet possibility. This is the first Japanese wallet app where the frontend technology is a simple user choice, not a straitjacket. It shows the innovation possible in Japanese payments market where the focus is on creative thinking. That this kind of innovation comes first on the Apple Pay platform says all you need to know about Apple Pay being open. Compare this approach to the Europe one where the focus is forcing others to solve problems that Europeans should be solving themselves. That approach is a political one, not an innovative solution, or progress.