In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new transit gate alarm sound going around. It sounds like this:
Yeah, that sound. I hear it more and more these days but what does it mean? We already have the bing-bong alert sound when there’s a transit IC card error or low fare, in which case the gate says, “insufficient fare”. Unlike those alert sounds however this new one is not a new alert for transit users…it’s an alarm sound for station staff, There was also the mystery surrounding the new alarm name: rainbow. Why do they call it the rainbow alarm?
It took some digging to find the answer: 「キセル防止」”fare evasion prevention“. The Japanese word for fare evasion “kiseru” has an interesting but murky history dating from the early pre-war Showa era. And the rainbow connection? All the lights on the transit gate flash. So when station staff hear the head turning rainbow alarm they can easily see which transit gate caught somebody attempting fare evasion.
A distinctive alarm sound for fare evasion has advantages. A few years back I was inside Shinjuku station walking directly behind a gaijin gal who exited JR Shinjuku without a ticket or Suica, completely ignoring the standard bing-bong alert without breaking stride. She then entered Odakyu Shinjuku without ticket, again completely ignoring the bing-bong alert without breaking stride, walking on to the train with attitude. Two fare evasions in a row. With the rainbow alarm, and ubiquitous station video surveillance, that kind of stunt will be much harder to pull off, especially for ‘gomi gaijin’ playing dumb to break rules and get their way.
It’s time to take a look at Suica and Japanese mobile transit ticketing developments expected for 2023. The Suica transit platform and Transit IC partners will introduce some big and important new service in 2023 that will play out over the next few years. Some like Cloud Suica, were due years ago. Some, like Mobile ICOCA should have been done years ago. And some are a response to COVID which is the inflection point that has changed Japanese transit forever. There is no going back to the transit world that was 2019 due to, mostly imagined, fear. Once fear takes hold in society, it becomes a mindset and mindsets are very hard to change.
There is also the cashless factor. COVID kicked the Japanese cashless migration into high gear, but this smashing success hasn’t made life any easier in the checkout line, no thanks to QR Code payment apps like PayPay and dPoint, with people taking longer to pay than even before as they dig around for coupons and discounts codes in smartphone apps. These code payments apps also changed the consumer mindset: they don’t want plain old points, they want points that work like cash, everywhere and instantaneous, instead of being stuck in point ghettos like JRE POINT. This is exactly what the PayPay and Rakuten point economic zones deliver.
The biggest COVID business casualty has been transit, with profitable commuter passes taking the biggest hit as companies transitioned to working from home and Zoom conferences whenever possible. And while people are using transit more since mid 2022, it has not recovered enough to stabilize transit company bottom lines. It’s a tough environment with companies trying to entice people, especially workers, to ride again with transit point perks and off-peak commuter discounts.
Private (non-JR) transit companies in particular are looking to offer more flexible fare options beyond what transit IC card systems currently offer. This is created a huge opening for the SMBC group stera transit open loop system: an off the shelf package ticketing system that combines transit gate reader hardware and cloud system from QUADRAC hooked into the SMBC stera payment platform. The SMBC stera transit marketing team is hard selling flexible fares such as fare capping and open loop appeal for inbound tourism.
It’s clear that JR Group and Transit IC association partners have to innovate and change to reduce costs while keeping the great convenience and benefits of the Suica transit payment platform. However as Steve Jobs once said about focus, focus is about saying no. You can either focus on making one service work great on your platform or just okay when you’re spreading limited resources too thin on supporting too many services. Do Japanese transit companies want better Transit IC for everybody or mediocre ticketing potpourri as money and engineering resources are diverted to bolting on open loop for a limited user base?
2023 Outlook That said the main arc of Suica and Transit IC for 2023 is expansion. Suica, ICOCA, TOICA are expanding station coverage but in different ways. JR West ICOCA will expand to cover all stations in 2023 with a mix of hardwired station gates, ICOCA equipped trains and region affiliate buses. And of course there is Mobile ICOCA launching this spring. JR Central has outlined a similar strategy for TOICA but no Mobile TOICA plans so far.
JR East had opted for hardwired stations using a mobile connected Cloud Suica system for lightweight fare processing. At the same time they are expanding Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate card reach with new cards and service extensions to existing cards. With all that in mind, let’s examine the month by month launch slate.
While it’s good that Suica and Transit IC cards can offer features and services attached to the card number, the current reality is that each service comes with a separate app, separate registration process and ID/PW login. There isn’t a single sign-in service, a JR East version of Sign in with Apple ID, for easy service registration and linking. Smartphone users are already drowning in apps, I don’t see most people using the growing tangle of services unless there is an easy to use and secure single sign-in service and streamlined UI.
March March and April are traditionally busy months with new schools, new jobs, buying new commuter passes that go with them, and launching new services:
1) Mobile ICOCA launches March 22. Mobile ICOCA will be hosted in similar fashion to Mobile PASMO which is based on Mobile Suica assets and cloud infrastructure. Osaifu Keitai will launch first followed by iPhone. This is a big development. JR West is building their ICOCA system expansion in a slightly different way than Cloud Suica by using separate ICOCA tap in/out readers on local trains and stripped down, simple ICOCA (no commuter pass support) for connecting transit affiliates. One interesting trend is the decline of PiTaPa card users since Kansai area private rail companies started offering ICOCA commuter passes (see the chart at the bottom of the post).
2) Off Peak Suica Commuter Pass COVID has made it clear that the old style ‘station to station’ commuter pass is outdated and its fare model needs to be modernized to bring business users back. All transit companies have to come up with new flexible commute plans that work for different work commute styles.
After dicking around with the confusing and convoluted off peak transit JRE POINT service campaign for 2 years amid a COVID induced commuter pass crisis, JR East is trying again: the confusing ‘Off Peak Commutes Pass’. Available for Suica cards and Mobile Suica, these new passes offer a 10% discount over regular commuter passes that are rising 1.4% with the condition: they must be used outside of the designated start station peak rush time. If you enter the transit gate during the peak rush time, bam, your Suica transit is charged the standard fare. No commute plan for you.
While this is a welcome development it doesn’t far enough. Flexible fare distance capped commute plans that are not tied to specific stations would be a much better deal for occasional business users. For example it would be great for sales people if there were commute plans that combined a selection of fixed distance zones (10 km, 20 km, 50 km, etc) with a selection of fixed trips (10, 20, 30 trips, etc.).
This isn’t a technology or system problem, it’s a business model mind-set problem. JR East has the Suica system in place to take mobile ticketing to the next level. It’s time that the JR Group lead the way for all transit companies to cooperate for a seamless national mobile transit solution.
Sendai Suica (with the odeca region joining in July)
The challenge of disability fare Suica/PASMO/Transit IC is that while the card is issued by the transit operator, the disability Suica card has to be certified using the resident city issued disability ID. This authorization is why disability Suica/PASMO is limited to plastic cards for the time being, at least until Digital My Number Card is launched on Android and iPhone. Why is disability fare Suica important? Up until now Suica has been a ‘stored Fare is stored fare’ one size fits all card. Suica has to evolve to include different fare types and services to survive as a viable transit payment platform.
4) Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Commute Plans for High/Jr. High School Students Another big push away from plastic to mobile with a streamlined app process for student commuter pass certification via updated Suica and PASMO apps. Hopefully a more streamlined mobile app certification process for student passes paves the way forward for disability fare issue Mobile Suica/PASMO as well. Local governments need to help make this happen.
April ICOCA extensions close the Transit IC gap between Honshu and Kyushu for thru transit via Shinkansen and plastic ICOCA/Sugoca commuter passes starting April 1. This is similar to the Suica-TOICA-ICOCA Atami and Maibara station extensions that launched in March 2021. The final piece of the JR puzzle is integrating their systems for thru local fare transit with regular plastic and mobile cards. It’s long overdue that they eliminate this last nonsensical nuance.
May 1) Cloud Suica extensions. A big one, a new Suica fare system that powers the Tohoku region Suica extensions for Aomoi (10 stations), Morioka (18 stations), Akita (17 stations) launches May 27. As outlined the separate posts, Cloud Suica is best thought of as Suica 2.0. The card is the same but the reader side and processing system is completely new. Ideally Suica 2.0 offers the best matchup of local stored fare with internet cloud based transaction processing instead of expensive dedicated pipes to the data processing center.
Lower system costs is one objective but not the only important one. The Suica 2.0 fare processing system will also power the new QR Eki-Net Ticket service that launches in the very same Tohoku Suica region in late FY 2024 (October 2024~March 2025). We’ll found out how flexible Suica 2.0 is if JR East starts offering much more fare innovation.
It’s important to reexamine the role of Suica 2 in 1 here. We have two new Suica developments that converge in the Tohoku region: we have the Suica 2 in 1 card itself, new updated FeliCa card and OS with new Suica architecture, and we have the cloud based Suica 2.0 fare system. In other words we have a Suica 2.0 card coupled with the Suica 2.0 processing system.
July 1) Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate odeca card joins the system, the first established transit card updating to the 2 in 1 format. All 2 in 1 cards to date have been new cards. The next established non-Suica compatible transit card transitioning to Suica 2 in 1 is Nagano City Kururu card in 2025.
2) Open loop stera transit comes to Tokyo in a big way as Tokyu Railway starts tests. If it’s anything like the gradual Nankai open loop tests, a few important stations will have a few gates retrofitted with open look EMV contactless and closed loop QR Code readers. They will also surely offer a smartphone app for QR ticket purchase and display. One interesting aspect of the Tokyu Railway effort is that Tokyu were responsible for pushing, and paying for, Mobile PASMO. It would not have happened otherwise.
The rest of 2023 There will certainly be more services announcements and launches in the 2nd half of the year such as Apple Pay ICOCA and more open loop test installations.
Coming in 2024 We have Suica linked financial services coming with JRE BANK (rebranded Rakuten Bank cloud infrastructure), Yamagata region Suica extensions (21 stations) and unspecified Sendai Suica region extensions that will pretty much complete the installation of Suica on the entire JR East rail network. And of course QR Eki-Net Tickets which build on all the Cloud Suica infrastructure rolling out this year.
As always I will update this overview post as new services are announced with links to individual posts and updated guides.
I ran across an untidy but interesting Twitter thread that mentioned Apple Pay Suica in the larger context of evolving NFC smartphone services.
Suica (Metro card / digital money in Japan) now lets you transfer the card to Apple Pay. Some thoughts about the future of FOBs, cards, and wallets…You use NFC to transfer your Suica by tapping the card with your iPhone, the same way you’d tap to use Apple Pay.
Devices support some kinds of NFC but not others. Until now, you couldn’t tap to use credit cards — it was blocked by the device.
But this is changing! Apple will support card payments now, in an app that IT will make & provide to vendors. This lets Apple compete in new hardware markets: first phones, now point-of-sale, payments, inventory mgmt, etc.
Physical cards are on the way out. But not everyone is on-board. FOBs, subway cards, ID cards, drivers licenses, and building security cards have been slow adopters of mobile. I’d love to copy my building FOB to my phone 😁 There’s nothing stopping me other than that I can’t.
Apple is moving into those markets….Airports, Driver licenses (in 30 / 50 US states). How far this tech goes & the speed of adoption depends on iOS, Android, and the people at ID / security / FOB / card companies adopting the change. They may need help! And there may be startup potential in that space… if anybody is interested!
The intention was discussing the implications of Apple’s recent Tap to Pay on iPhone announcement, but it stumbled over a rarely discussed but vital point about the extremely slow migration of various physical card services to mobile devices. Why can’t we just load these in Wallet…all the technology is in place right?
The mobile chokepoint is not technology but the backend systems to seamlessly deliver, verify and securely manage individual ‘card’ services (payment cards, transit cards, ID cards, keys, etc.) in digital wallets. Those systems are not up to the job. You can be sure that Apple wants to get iOS 15 ID in Wallet driver licenses out quickly as possible but corralling all those state run systems into a coherent user friendly whole that holds up to the high expectations and massive base of iPhone users eagerly waiting to use it, is a very big challenge. It’s a similar challenge behind every kind of digital wallet service.
This backend weakness is easy to see with transit cards, there are relatively few on mobile with most of the cards exclusive or limited to certain digital wallets like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. There are special challenges too as a mobile transit card service hosts all the functions of ye olde station kiosk card machine (card issue, adding money, pass renewal, etc.) and more, on the cloud, pushing it out to apps and connecting to digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay.
Despite the challenges, the rewards for going mobile are clear. If there is one lesson Apple Pay proved in Japan with Suica it is that building a mobile foundation early on is key to future success. Mobile laggards like Hong Kong Octopus have paid a heavy price. Unfortunately for regions where transit is operated as a public service instead of a sustainable business, spending money building transit card mobile service systems is often considered an extravagance.
Banks have had an easier path to mobile thanks to the strength of EMV payment networks, but only on the payment transaction end. Mobile card issue is another matter up to individual banks. Look at the Apple Pay participating bank list for the United States. The long list didn’t happen overnight. It has taken years for mobile backend systems to be put in place to make this happen.
It’s all about the backend A sadly overlooked aspect of the Japanese market is the crazy collection of contactless payment options: Suica, iD, QUICPay, WAON, nanaco, Edy, PayPay, LinePay, dBarai, VISA-mastercard-AMEX Touch payments and more. The reason for this is Japan’s early lead in creating the first mobile payment platform, Osaifu Keitai, in 2004.
Not everybody used Osaifu Keitai early on, but it grew the mobile payments foundation so the market was ready for new mobile payment platforms when Apple Pay launched in 2016. More importantly, the early lead also meant that bank card issuers, payment networks and transit companies had backend systems firmly in place servicing a large installed base of various digital wallet capable handsets (Symbian) and smartphones (Android) that quickly extended to Apple Pay and Google Pay.
The backend flexibility is easy to see on the Mobile Suica page that shows all the different Mobile Suica flavors: Android (Osaifu Keitai), Apple Pay, Google Pay, Rakuten Pay. Mobile Suica is also on Garmin Pay, Fitbit Pay and is coming to Wear OS.
Success or failure for any mobile wallet card service depends on reliability, simplicity and the speed for adding cards and using them. From VISA:
When it comes to digital onboarding, the average amount of time after which customers abandon their application is 14 minutes and 20 seconds. Any longer than this, and 55 percent of customers leave the process.
There is also context. Futzing for 14 minutes might apply for people setting up a bank app, but a transit app user trying to get through a ticket gate at rush hour is a completely different matter. Judging from the large number of negative Suica App user reviews and complaints on twitter, Japanese transit users probably give it 2 minutes before giving up and calling it all crap. Speed is the key.
How long does it take? The speed of adding a card to Wallet depends on a number of factors, what kind of wallet service are we dealing with (car key, hotel key, home key, office key, payment, transit, ID), does the user need an account first, can a physical card be transferred, what kind of user verification is required.
User verification with digital credentials is still in its infancy which is why driver’s licenses and state IDs in Apple Wallet is fascinating and important. How does one authenticate their own ID card? Apple explains the process but doesn’t say how long verification takes or reveal backend details:
Similar to how customers add new credit cards and transit passes to Wallet today, they can simply tap the + button at the top of the screen in Wallet on their iPhone to begin adding their license or ID… The customer will then be asked to use their iPhone to scan their physical driver’s license or state ID card and take a selfie, which will be securely provided to the issuing state for verification. As an additional security step, users will also be prompted to complete a series of facial and head movements during the setup process. Once verified by the issuing state, the customer’s ID or driver’s license will be added to Wallet.
The verification process is similar to the recent addition of Mobile Suica student commuter pass purchases where students take a picture of their student ID and upload it. Online verification takes ‘up to 2 business days’ because Mobile Suica has to manually verify the ID information with the school. Hopefully the Face ID setup-like ‘additional security step’ is the magic iPhone ingredient for instant verification by the state issuer. However notice that Apple doesn’t spell out where the face and head movements are stored. Hopefully it will stay in the Secure Enclave and never be stored on a server. We shall see when ID in Wallet launches with the iOS 15.4 update.
As you can see from the table below, the journey from backend system to Wallet varies widely by the type of service. The easier additions are the ones done in Wallet app: card scans for payment cards and ID or simply tapping to add transit cards.
Physical card scans are the primary way to add payment cards but this is changing, apps will replace plastic card scans over time. In Japan there are a growing number of ‘instant issue’ credit/debit digital cards from top tier banks that can only be added to Wallet with an app and account. Digital onboarding is the direction banks are going, where everybody has to go to an app first to add a card to Wallet. This leaves transit cards as the only card that can be added without an app or account.
Who owns the thing in Wallet? Physical keys, fobs and plastic cards may seem inconvenient at times but they are personal property we carry on our person. One downside of digital wallets is that convenience carries a risk that the thing in Wallet isn’t necessarily ours. What is added with a simple tap can also be taken away by a technical glitch, or in a worst case scenario, without our consent. As backend systems improve and integrate, more services will migrate to our digital wallets. Without doubt much of this will be convenient but read the fine print and always keep your eyes open to the tradeoffs and risks. In other words don’t let your digital wallet be a potential chokepoint of your life.
The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.
The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.
My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.
The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.
His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.
The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.
Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.
Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket maze that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.
Nankai Visa Touch and QR Code Transit: the Nakai, VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd venture started in April for Visa Touch and Nankai Digital Touch QR, QR tickets are purchased and used via the Nakai App and can only be purchased with Visa brand credit cards.
Osaka Metro ICOCA: Osaka Metro started selling ICOCA commuter passes and regular cards from November available at all station kiosks. They are the last major PiTaPa member to add ICOCA commuter passes, other major members (Keihan, Hankyu, Hanshin, etc.) added them years ago and have finally retired mag-strip commuter passes. One clarification regarding TOICA: it’s sold at Shin-Osaka station by JR West not Osaka Metro. An interesting aside is that when you use TOICA on Osaka Metro the system recognizes it as ICOCA. In a separate development Osaka Metro wants to implement face recognition transit gates for the 2025 Osaka Expo that dump cards altogether.
Keihan ICOCA: Started offering ICOCA Points at the end of 2020 (discount fares for repeat transits in the same month).
In the Transit IC card 2020 ranking by issue/holder numbers PiTaPa was 6th at 3.3 million cards with the slowest growth. It will likely drop to 7th place in 2021.
Nankai Open Loop Tests As expected the Visa Touch and QR gates are limited to certain stations and exits. From the on-site media presentation pictures it’s clear that Nanaki is doing open loop transit gates the right way by keeping EMV/ QR only gates separate and off to the side wherever possible (bolt-on jobs are used in narrow areas). If there is one thing we have seen these past few years it’s that all-in-one gates with multi-protocol readers are slow and error prone. They just doesn’t work well for transit.
Target users are inbound travelers from Kansai International airport and plastic contactless Visa brand cards as it does not support Apple Pay Express Transit or similar services on Google Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. The inbound angle is a tough sell in the travel restricted COVID era now that Kansai area hotels are closing and laying off staff. A few interesting inbound points: Mainland China visitors use Union Pay not Visa, QR tickets have to be bought with a Visa card, and Nankai Digital Touch QR tickets are faster at the gate than Visa Touch because they are closed loop.
Taken altogether it’s mayhem. As FeliCa Dude says in his tweet, Surutto Kansai is done for. The interesting thing is that PiTaPa is a very similar to the digital Opal Mastercard debit with specific merchants allowed scheme: a closed loop credit card account instead of the closed loop digital Opal Mastercard debit account. Where PiTaPa failed was that Surutto never provided a plain old prepaid transit card option so that users could buy a commuter or regular one for cash and recharge it at any station kiosk. Opal of course still sells the good old Opal MIFARE prepaid card and they would be smart to keep it around. There will always be a need for cash based transit cards.
Why can’t Surutto Kansai to come up with this simple solution for PiTaPa? In a word, SMBC bank group. They are behind the PiTaPa card creation, and now they are pushing Visa Touch transit. It’s an unfortunate and awkward situation: transit companies forced to issue and use an ‘outside’ transit card like ICOCA instead of their ‘in-house’ PiTaPa brand. I suspect the impasse will continue until SMBC gives in and let Surutto create a prepaid card and own the float, or the major Surutto Kansai members stage a real revolt. Until something gives Mobile PiTaPa will be impossible. The pressure to do something will only grow as the Mobile ICOCA 2023 launch approaches.
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