The Transit Platform Argument

A reader asked some very good questions regarding the Suica Transit Platform model and Open Loop:

1) Thinking about this recently – is there a non-techie argument for introducing Suica-type cards in the current day in places with preexisting open-loop infrastructure, wide debit card adoption (even kids), and little overcrowding at ticket gates due to lower volumes?

2) As a tech & transit nerd, I obviously love them, but what could be a convincing, economically sound pitch to a transit operator for creating/adopting an integrated transit&e-money system, given the significant expense and questionable added value?

3) Answers to possible q’s about EMV contactless: 1. 定期券 (commuter passes) & discounts can be tied to card no.; 2. solution for visitors: in-app/paper/multi-trip tickets (like in SG). Obv., Suica has superior privacy & speed, but where speed is not an issue, what’s the killer argument?

I tweeted a response but Twitter is a terrible vehicle for long form discussion. I have many posts on the subject scattered over 2 years, it might be convenient to summarize a few things here.

Any argument for building a Transit Platform or going all in with Open Loop transit comes down to transit company priorities for safe operation, better customer service and long term business goals. A few crucial points to consider.

Whose customer?
A vital point that many people miss in the Open Loop debate is that transit users end up as the bank card customer, not the transit company customer. That might seem like an insignificant difference but ‘owning the customer’ is the whole game and key to growing any kind of business, in our era or any era. Which brings us to the next point because the best way to own the transit customer is…

Cards
Cards are the delivery vehicle for all kinds of service goodies from transit, to points, rewards and all kinds of services. The beauty of a non-bank transit pre-paid card is its flexibility, it can be a simple ticket that customers buy with cash from a station kiosk, it can be linked to an online account with credit cards, extended transit services and beyond. Cards are convenient but not transformative however, until they land on a smartphone…

Digital Wallets
The most powerful card incarnation is the digital wallet transit card with a flexible recharge backend, where any bank card can used, or even cash, and a flexible front-end that can be any flavor of NFC, UWB Touchless or even QR. I say it’s better for the transit operator to decide what payment technology works best for their needs and how to deliver better customer service with new payment technologies, not banks.

Value Capture
Value Capture applies to rail and transit operators with the rights to develop the land around their stations, I include station retail development and operations. Owning a transit + payment card like Suica or Octopus combined with retail opens up a whole new levels of value creation and capture.

It’s also important to remember a few other dynamics, (1) Transit is the golden uptake path for contactless payments, (2) Contactless payments are most successful when a transit payment platform, like Suica, is matched with a mobile wallet platform, like Apple Pay. The key is building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region.

Other Details
Regarding detail questions such as attaching commuter passes to EMV cards and special ticketing, I am no systems design expert but a few things come to mind. First of all we have not seen Open Loop commuter passes because the EMV spec doesn’t store anything locally and there are always security and performance issues to consider when everything is done in the cloud with soft-linked registration to system outside numbers.

The classic catch 22 here is that when the soft-linked number changes on one system, everything attached to it on the other system stops working. This is a constant weakness of the SmartEx and new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service. And what happens if the bank pulls a card mid-transit? These things happen. They are endless headaches when linking to any outside system, for this reason Open Loop sticks with the simple stuff while transit operators keep the more complex stuff in-house. In general the more complicated the fare configuration, the less likely it can be synced with an outside system or be hosted on Open Loop.

For low volume specialty ticketing QR Codes are the easiest step up from paper but they can be printed on ordinary paper for transit users without smartphones and needs to be there. This is why JR East is deploying QR code readers in some gates as they prepare to end mag strip ticketing.

NFC Contactless Passes might sound like a good idea but Apple Pay VAS and Google Pay Smart Tap were designed more for retail in mind, and the transit gate reader system would have to juggle a different protocol that isn’t EMV, FeliCa or MIFARE. It could be done, but judging from my experience of using Apple Pay VAS PONTA and dPOINT cards, QR Codes are faster and likely easier to implement.

In the long run there are no easy solutions. The risk of Open Loop is that it is sold as a general easy ‘fix all’ and mobile solution, which it’s not. This lulls transit operators into complacency instead of improving Closed Loop ticketing systems and extending them to the mobile digital wallets. The bigger and more complex the transit system, the less Open Loop can accomplish.

Relevant Core Posts
The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms (an intro)
Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Really Suck for Transit? (a deeper dive into transit cards, gates and technology)
Value Capture and the Ecosystem of Transit Platforms (the bigger picture)
The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model (an outside perspective)

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Mandatory Suica App update on March 14

As predicted, a new version of Suica App is coming in tandem with the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launch on March 14. Suica App users must update to v2.6 by March 18, after that date older versions can no longer login to Mobile Suica.

A new Eki-net app that supports the new eTicket service should be coming at the same time. The old Suica App Shinkansen eTicket service ends March 13.

New JR East Shinkansen eTicket service is a bumpy transition

Three new Suica App system notices spell out the end of old style in-app Shinkansen ticket purchases ending March 13 for the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launching March 14. The switchover is going to be bumpy and clear as mud. A quick list of things to be careful of:

The Bad Ugly

  • Automatic Apple Pay Suica ID# linking is dead
    You have to manually enter your Apple Pay Suica # in the fugly Japanese only Eki-net online site (not the iOS app). Unfortunately copy/paste from Suica App does not work well because the first 2 letters of the string must be entered via pull down menu (macOS) or scroll wheel (iOS) and the entry field cuts off the final 2 digits of the string. This is stupid UI design in the smartphone era.
  • Suica App Shinkansen in app purchases are dead, new eTicket Shinkansen reservations/purchases have to be made online in Eki-net. The current version of iOS Eki-net has not been updated yet and is only for old style ticket reservations and purchases.

The Good

  • All major transit IC cards can be registered for JR East Shinkansen eTickets on the Eki-net site.

The Missing
From a system standpoint it’s clear that locally processed Shinkansen tickets directly downloaded to Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica are over. All JR systems will use the same smartEX approach of soft-linked transit IC card numbers with the eTicket information stored on the cloud.

We are losing Suica App Shinkansen in-app integration, iOS Eki-net app is not plugged in with Shinkansen eTicketing, taken together with backend system changes I guess JR East is breaking eggs to make a new omelette. Will things end end up bigger and better?

JR group cooperation is a classic cat herd, Shinkansen lines might be connected but they don’t appear to be cooperating on a deep level to integrate eTicketing systems, at least not from the outside. This needs to change. The JR East press releases details the Shinkansen eTicket system merger with JR West which operates the Toyama~Ishikawa section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. There are a few minor updates on the JR Central EX system, details on the EX site (Japanese), but nothing that indicates more interoperability.

The challenges of operating a massive ticketing system smoothly while rebuilding it must be huge. It will be a longish migration of many moving pieces and even though we know what is going away, it’s not exactly clear what the finished service will include. Let’s hope JR East is up to the job when the real fun starts on March 14, and stay focused while aggressively fixing the inevitable bugs and problems during the transition.

UPDATE
Right on cue JR East Eki-net and JR West e5489 systems have been experiencing occasional credit card processing problems for Shinkansen ticket purchases. These 2 systems are being integrated for Shinkansen eTicket service.

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.

Fields of Dreams: the endlessly looping open loop vs closed loop transit debate

MacRumors reported that Apple Pay Express Transit support is finally arriving, bit by bit, on the TfL system after being announced back in May. I only noticed the piece because somebody threw a link to my site in one of the forum comments and the discussion has some interesting, and deliciously snarky, open loop bank cards for transit vs. native transit card debate.

The ‘Japan has a transit IC card problem’ angle is interesting. Yes, Japan does have a transit IC card problem, if you work for a bank credit card operation that wants to promote open loop, which I suspect is the case in the forum debate. The counter argument presentation-like power points are just too glib: to date no major transit system has junked native transit cards for bank cards, not even Oyster. Transit is a license to print money and the huge transaction volumes in Tokyo alone are mouth watering. The ‘problem’ for bank card players is how to angle for a bigger cut of the action.

The debate perfectly represents the plastic era transit card vs credit card mindset. More interesting to me are the things people don’t discuss: the impact of Apple Pay and Google Pay digital wallet platforms and transit business models. My take is that smartphone digital wallets do away with old plastic era distinctions and create new business opportunities for transit companies, if they chose to pursue them. Most don’t.

Tech analysts love to talk about ‘value capture’. The current cashless payments frenzy in Japan is all about capturing users to sign on with a payment platform then growing the ecosystem with more and more services that users, hopefully, want to pay extra for. Nobody talks about this in the open loop vs closed loop debate. The bank that owns the credit card owns the customer going through the transit gate, not the transit company. Put it this way, JRE POINT that go back into free Suica recharges, Green Car upgrades, etc. are vastly different from bank card points, as are the business platforms they feed customers back into. Moving people are money in motion, who gets a cut and what businesses do with that cut is everything.

It an interesting paradox that Europe and America talk about privatizing public transportation in various degrees but to date only Japan and Hong Kong have built highly successful businesses based on ‘value capture’. The endless open loop vs closed loop debate always comes down to this: you can argue all you want about the parts but in the end it is meaningless. To truly understand things, you have to examine the whole business model, how everything fits together, and how that can benefit everybody while growing and evolving.