The Weekly #1

July 27, 2021

With so little real news to write about these days, I’m trying out a weekly digest format instead of individual itty bitty posts. Sticking with a mundane regular schedule is also good practice, we’ll see how it goes.

Tokyo 2020 TP Transit Card
Foreign media (already in Japan as opposed to those coming for the event who are limited by protocols for the first 14 days) covering the Tokyo Olympics were issued a special ‘TP Card’ limited transit pass covering Tokyo region transit July 10~ August 11. Dan Orlowitz who covers sports for the Japan Times tweeted some pictures of the pass. Look carefully at the transit gate display screen, there are some very interesting things going on: (1) The display language is English (nice touch), (2) The card balance is 0. The card itself is issued by JR East and is a Suica commuter card with a 1 month pass and the balance turned ‘off’, that is to say that TP Card numbers are ‘block listed’ for any recharge function.

The TP Card shows a way forward for Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, etc.) that started with Welcome Suica: more flexible options, discount and special passes for all kinds of users and uses. The next important step will be getting these, along with 2 in 1 Region cards, on mobile.


Is Apple Pay Overrated?
What technology works and doesn’t work for people in everyday life is always a fascinating subject. Mike at Tech702 asks a good question: is Apple Pay overrated? For Mike in daily Las Vegas life, yes Apple Pay is completely overrated. I saw much of the same during my Salt Lake City summer stay in 2018, although Smiths grocery had just started taking Apple Pay at the time. Did they pull the plug? It’s a good reminder that retail chains and banks in America switch loyalties without notice and the payments infrastructure is all over the place, witness Targets changing their accepted credit card lineup when I was in Salt Lake.

Some snobby Europeans like to look down on America and other places they perceive as not being up to speed with contactless payments. The truth is when Japanese journalists like Junya Suzuki take a good look at state of European contactless payments, it’s not so great either. The state of contactless payments around the world is still very much a touch and go thing.


iOS 15 Beta 3 Score Card
iOS 15 reached beta 3 last week. Here’s how it’s panning out:

Apple Maps new cartography continues to evolve. Japanese roads were decolorized, railway lines are different and drawn in harder to see light blue. Overall I think dark mode is works better than light mode (better contrast, easier to pick out details, etc.). See Justin O’Beirne‘s page for details. Transit Notifications are also improved slightly but still only work for surface transit. Forget about using it on the subway. Despite the fancy redecoration Apple still refuses to label the Sea of Japan (since 2020). Unnecessary, dumb and insulting.

Weather App: still only shows temperature maps which I think are useless. Forget about precipitation which is the killer feature for any weather app worth using. Air Quality doesn’t apply to Japan as there is no national standard.

Last but not least, Apple Music and Apple TV are basically useless in iOS 15 b3, more 3rd party app are crashing too. Hopefully b4 will be stable.


Ossan’s Love in Hong Kong?
Just when I thought the Ossan’s Love franchise had run out of gas, it seems the Hong Kong version of the Japanese series is also a hit and making waves instead of giggles, although calling it “sugar-coated marijuana” is pretty funny. If the Hong Kong version is anything like the Japanese one, it is sugar-coated silliness. For my money the other Japanese hit gay themed series ‘What did you eat yesterday?‘ was not only a lot more engaging, funny, serious and thought provoking, it was also useful as a cooking show. Kinda like Shinya Shokudo (Midnight Diner) with better interior decorating and worth the time investment.

Have a good week and enjoy the Olympics.

Global NFC FitBit Sense and Versa 3

Who would have thought that team FitBit would beat team Pixel to the market with global NFC devices? That is what happened with the release of FitBit Sense and Versa 3, any device bought in any country can add and use Suica. FitBit Charge 4 was the first device to support Suica but only for certain Japanese models. This means that Android users without global NFC can now add it with FitBit Sense and Versa 3. FitBit was up to the global NFC challenge all along. Going forward FitBit needs to expand Japan payment options to include iD, QUICPay, Waon, Nanaco, Mobile PASMO and NFC Pay.

There is one catch: the device must be registered and the IP address must be in Japan to use Suica. It sounds like Mobile Suica lite is being used. Hopefully the same approach can be employed to launch Octopus on FitBit devices in Hong Kong, there are users there who would appreciate it.

Will mobile ticketing go mainstream with new JR East Eki-Net?

Waku-waku for the new Eki-Net? JR East wants to make travel ‘waku-waku’ fun and romantic again like the Showa ‘Full Moon’ campaign era when JR Group ticketing was unified.

One unfortunate legacy of the Japanese National Railways (JNR) breakup and privatization in the late 1980’s was a fragmented ticketing system. The JNR paper ticket system worked very well. I was always impressed how you could go to any JNR Green Window ticket office and the all knowing agent would give expect advice and deftly punch up tickets to anywhere, in any configuration, even covering private rail.

The JR Group model fell apart in the internet era with online ticketing services, Suica and compatible Transit IC cards limited to separate JR Group regions. JR Group ticketing for paper, but not for mobile. What got broken doesn’t get put back together easily though it desperately needs to.

Last weekend the 20 year old JR East Eki-Net online ticket reservation system got the ‘renewal’ overhaul advertised back in March, that aims to reintegrate JR Group tickets into one slick consistent UI instead of a swamp of sub-menus. It also repositions Eki-Net from a limited ‘nice but I’ll stick with paper’ online purchase option to a standard way that JR East wants people to buy train tickets.

While eTickets have been in place since March 2020, Eki-Net 2 is the first serious step towards eliminating legacy mag-strip paper tickets and drastically reduce the number station ticket offices in favor of online mobile ticketing. The first stop for all JR East ticketing is now Eki-Net instead of lining up at a station ticket window.

There are 2 Eki-Net flavors: (1) the full comprehensive Eki-Net Web version optimized for desktop and smartphones offering mobile tickets, paper tickets, car rentals and tour packages like the classic 2nd honeymoon ‘Full Moon’ campaign for retiree couples, (2) Eki-Net App that only offers JR East eTicket and Ticketless mobile options.

What exactly is mobile ticketing?
To understand the aim of Eki-Net it’s important to know the basic ticketing categories:

  • Suica (Transit IC cards) pays the distance based fare using the Stored Fare (SF),
  • eTickets are cloud account Shinkansen ticket bundles that include the end to end distance fare plus the express • seat reservation charge, they are attached to the Suica or Transit IC card via the card number but do not use SF
  • Ticketless is a mixed mode that combines a cloud account express • seat reservation for regular express train seating used in combination with Suica SF
  • Touch and Go is a ticketless Shinkansen option that uses Suica and Transit IC cards for non-reserved seat Shinkansen travel in a pre-determined area, basically the whole JR East network

What’s new in Eki-Net 2?
Suica plays a central role in Eki-Net mobile ticketing. 2021 is also the 20th anniversary of Suica which has evolved beyond its commuter pass origins to encompass eMoney payments, mobile devices, Transit IC mutual compatibility and more.

In recent years Suica has gained another role as an all purpose mobile transit card hosting Shinkansen eTicket from JR East and SmartEX from JR Central. The challenge facing JR East is migrating the vast array of special ticketing and discount fares schemes from paper to mobile. Let’s take a look at the new banner features advertised for Eki-Net 2 and examine how JR East is doing this.

JRE POINT Integration
The integration of JRE POINT is the biggest new feature and illustrates JR East’s intention. The old Eki-Net point system was scrapped, good thing, there is finally point synergy and compatibility between Suica and Eki-Net. If you have any doubts that JR East is serious about mobile ticketing, take a look at the JRE POINT reward schedule:

Earning JRE POINT in Eki-Net, the VIEW PLUS Gold vs Regular 5% difference is obscene

Online paper ticket purchases give you basically zero points if you buy them with anything other than a JR East VIEW credit card, called ‘VIEW PLUS’ service which adds 3% or 8% more JRE POINT per ticket purchase amount depending on the VIEW card for a total of 5% (Regular VIEW) or 10% (Gold VIEW). JRE POINT can also be used for purchasing mobile only eTicket and Ticketless, and upgrading to Green Car and Gran Class seats. The upgrade exchange rate depends on distance and the train type, the new UI shows users all possible JRE POINT seat upgrades during seat selection.

Using JRE POINT in Eki-Net

Improved UI for web and app
Basically the new design dumps the old way of selecting the JR line or train and streamlines everything into a single station point and date entry screen. Seat selection is the advertised UI improvement and it shows: it is much improved on the web side, discount ticket comparisons are easy to see as are JRE POINT seat upgrades.

QR Codes support for group ticket pickup
A nice paper ticket option so that one person can purchase all tickets and send a QR Code for group members to pick up their tickets at the nearest station kiosk. It’s more convenient and replaces the old insert credit card and enter PIN code method for paper ticket pickup.

Eki-Net ticket discounts
Paper tickets have traditionally been the cheaper option. JR East must offer good discount incentives to drive mobile ticketing uptake. Fortunately the new Eki-Net ‘Tokuda-ne’ discounts offer anywhere from 5% off for same day tickets to 50% off for 20 day advance tickets. Discounts combined with JRE POINT are good but we’ll only find out if they drive mobile ticket uptake when regular train travel returns. While these options have closed the discount gap between mobile and paper somewhat, the majority of discount ticketing is still paper only.

JR-EAST Train Reservation
The international flavor of Eki-Net is called JR-EAST Train Reservation. It’s a completely separate web only multi-lingual service that offers regional passes for inbound tourists that can be purchased online before coming to Japan, or at a passport reading station kiosk. JR-EAST Train Reservation passes are different from the paper only Japan Rail Pass in that a growing number of them can be attached to Suica. New features here include: (1) Expanded multi-language support (2) pass purchases after coming to Japan (3) using Suica to attach eTickets. For the later there is a new user guide and How to register your IC card section. You can use Apple Pay Suica • PASMO by registering the card number, get the number using Suica App or PASMO App.

Weak points and summary
The Eki-Net renewal is big, complex and getting mixed reviews from Japanese users. Some love it, others hate it calling it, ‘an improvement for the worse’. The biggest gripe for many is that only up to 4 Express Train • Shinkansen sections are supported for one trip purchase. If you are traveling from Kagoshima to Aomori, forget Eki-Net and go straight to your local station ticket office for paper tickets.

The iOS Eki-Net App remains a nice idea that needs work. It feels like a thin re-skinned version of the mobile web one without offering any obvious benefit, the Face ID•Touch ID login option still useless as you have to manually login once every 24 hours and complete a picture puzzle. And there is no Apple Pay in-app support.

My biggest gripe is the failure of the JR Group to get their mobile ticketing act together. Sure, we have JR Central EX and JR East eTickets, but these are locked in their respective service regions. This is 2021, JR Group ticketing should be cross compatible, streamlined and mobile ready. It doesn’t matter how great JR East makes Eki-Net, users can travel with just Suica on the Tokaido and Tohoku Shinkansen, but they have to buy 2 tickets using 2 different accounts and billing with 2 different ticketing systems. We should be able to travel anywhere on JR Group lines using one account to buy mobile tickets. In todays scenario this isn’t possible. The unfortunate legacy of the JNR breakup lives on.

‘New Eki-Net’ poster at the local JR East station. The overall impression of Eki-Net 2 is that less about going mobile and more about getting customers out of the ticket office to a station kiosk machine instead.

Reference posts
JRE POINT Beginners Guide
Suica App • PASMO App Guide
Apple Pay Suica Shinkansen

Cloud Suica and Suica region extensions announced for early 2023

JR East announced cloud based Suica and extended coverage for the Tohoku region, going online with 44 stations in early 2023 and closing some major service gaps around the same time that Mobile ICOCA is due to launch. This same cloud system is expected to drive JR East QR closed loop ticketing and MaaS Suica based services and also syncs with the Mobile ICOCA aim of delivering MaaS services in the JR West region.

You might think that JR East has installed Suica gates in every station but this is not the case: as of 2018 Suica is installed in roughly half of JR East’s 1667 stations with these station additions the first in more than 4 years. The reason is cost. Unmanned stations have simple Suica validators but the cost of hard wiring these to the Suica data center is an obstacle. Fast local processing is one of the advantages of Suica but the dedicated network backbone costs for linking and syncing with JR East servers doesn’t come cheap.

The new internet cloud based Suica backend will calculate fares centrally rather than on each gate. The trade off is slightly slower speeds with the benefit of lower installation and maintenance costs so that Suica can easily be installed anywhere. Japanese tech journalist Junya Suzuki tweeted that probably half of Suica transaction processing would remain local with half of the fare processing in Suica cloud. This means the local Suica card SF transaction is partially offloaded by the gate to a distributed closed loop fare processing network via a fast reliable internet connection. It also means that stations with heavy traffic keep fare processing on the gate.

Previously JR East had said they expect to reach 100% Suica deployment with Cloud Suica in the 2021 fiscal year (ending March 2021) and hope to sell it internationally. The program is running over a year late and the first step will be getting the new system to JR Group companies (JR West, JR Central, JR Kyushu, JR Hokkaido) before going international.

Related posts
Cloud Suica and the next generation Suica architecture
2 in 1 Suica Region Affiliate Cards

The Open Loop transit privacy question

In 2013 JR East faced a crisis over selling Suica ridership pattern data analysis to Hitachi. The Suica data was stripped of personal information and was used to analyze popular transit routes and create general user profiles based on age group, gender and so on. Media outcry resulted in JR East drafting an opt out data policy followed by Japanese Government laws and regulations covering personal data privacy.

That was then, this is now. Line, the popular messaging service plus Line Pay payment platform, came under attack this week for storing user and transaction record data outside of Japan, in South Korea and China. This is not a surprise since Line started in South Korea and storing data on cloud servers there was always an open secret. Why the brouhaha now? The recent complicated Z Holdings acquisition maneuvers of Line are a factor. With PayPay and Line Pay QR payment empires now in the same house some kind of streamlining is bound to happen. The data scandal could be a convenient excuse to start it.

The constant drip of privacy concerns regarding social networks and QR payment systems like Line Pay, and where user transaction data is stored, makes the old JR East crisis look small and silly. Everything is more connected now in unexpected ways than even just 8 years ago.

It doesn’t matter how secure transaction protocols are when user transaction record data is stored on leaky servers or sold to outsiders for profit. I wrote about this earlier, the so called popularity of QR Code payment services in Japan is really about big data. In that vein we have a timely blog post on Open Loop ltransit rider privacy from Transit Center.

For a professional advocacy organization dedicated ‘to improve public transit,’ the Transit Center privacy publication is surprisingly amateurish. It raises valid concerns but reads like open loop advertising from credit card companies (Transit Center soft sponsors?), where open loop is the golden cure-all future, and the only future at that, of every transit ill with closed loop invariably portrayed as a dead era of tokens, punchcards and mag strip swipe cards. They also make MTA seem like the only transit system in America that matters because idiosyncratic MTA problems apply everywhere. Right? Wrong. Let’s take a look at their privacy blog post…<<with comments>>.

Transit agencies around the country are adopting a new generation of fare payment systems. Agencies including New York’s MTA, Boston’s MBTA, and Houston METRO are in the process of switching to what’s known as “open-loop” systems that enable riders to tap into the system using digital wallets on their phones or with their credit cards…

<<more banks handling transit fare concessions sounds like a good idea for privacy, wait until the TC folks figure out that ‘closed loop’ bank card accounts for digital wallet OMNY is the next step in the game>>

These technologies come with clear benefits for riders, but they also carry the risk of exposing more personal data…

<<here it comes>>

The switch to these new fare payment technologies can accelerate access to riders’ trip data by other government agencies. In New York, for instance, individuals’ MTA trip data can be retrieved much faster with the new OMNY system than with the older MetroCard system…

<<retrieve trip data quickly on a fare system where users don’t tap out…what? privacy concerns are not just government agencies btw with multiple 3rd party companies handling and processing transit fare data…which brings us to>>

The increased involvement of third parties in fare payment underscores the need for better data collection and management policies within transit agencies.

<<better as in more big data details?>>

How to Implement the Next Generation of Fare Payment Without Shredding Riders’ Privacy

Anybody experienced in dealing with bank and card company customer service could see this coming. Bank and transit operating cultures are different and they don’t mix well with outside companies running the transit gate fare concession. If you think transit privacy is a concern now, wait until face recognition transit gates become the next transit future thing.

Let’s make this simple. Open Loop (EMV and QR) and bank card EMV Closed Loop means that banks and outside payment platforms run their services at the fare gates They have transit user data, as does the transit company, so does the fare system management subcontractor like Cubic. The more places data is stored the more it’s gonna leak. This is exactly what is playing out in Japan right now because Line Pay Japan user transaction data is stored in South Korea which does not, putting it mildly, have a good secure data reputation.

That doesn’t mean that closed loop is automatically more secure, but keeping data in-house with its own closed loop transaction card in the country of origin, as JR East does for Mobile Suica, does mean that outside company access is tightly controlled. At the very least there is only one company in the country of origin to take the blame when something leaks, and only one place to plug it.