Mobile transport services, a promising business

March 22, 2017 | Pierre Combelles

Transport is an area where mobile is transforming the user experience – and continues to do so more and more deeply. Today, transport mobile applications allow one to plan travel, buy tickets and, increasingly, to validate them. Validation is often based on bar codes – which is too slow for mass transit. However, in a growing number of cities, passengers can validate their tickets using their NFC phones at transit gates or validation points, just like contactless travel cards (please see GSMA transport case study via this link).

Transport is a promising use case for mobile contactless services because:

–    the added value to the consumer is immediate as a result of the quick planning/purchase process, and removal of the need to queue at ticket machines or fumble for tickets;

–    it creates high recurrent usage, which helps make consumers comfortable with mobile contactless services and mobile commerce in general.

Still hindered by fragmentation

However, deployments have been slower than expected because of well-known interoperability issues, such as:

  1. Radio compatibility between handsets and transit readers, where separate specification processes led to slight differences that caused certain handsets to work poorly with certain transit readers, even though largely based on the same standards;
  2. Legacy transit infrastructure, where some legacy transit readers were unable to select the correct transport application on the phone to validate the ticket, having been designed for single-purpose contactless travel cards;
  3. A variety of contactless application execution environments, including: NXP’s MiFare (which dominates in many markets); native Java Card (in China); Calypso in some European countries and ITSO in the UK. These are typically designed to run in secure elements (SIM cards or embedded chipsets), but are challenged by the emergence and popularity of HCE (Host Card Emulation, now a standard Android feature), which allows apps to access the contactless interface without a secure element.

But the situation is gradually improving as these issues are being addressed:

  1. Radio compatibility issues have been successfully addressed by a joint group led by the NFC Forum, involving the CEN (European Committee for Standardisation, standardising transit readers) and the GSMA Terminal Steering Group (TSG). The resulting handset requirements and test cases are now included in the TSG specifications, and are being integrated in the Global Certification Forum’s requirements. In addition, “plug fests” are being organised on a regular basis to check the compatibility between handsets and transit readers.
  2. The Mifare4Mobile consortium has specified how MiFare applications should be managed in a multi-application environment (i.e. a mobile phone as opposed to a traditional transport card).
  3. The TSG is also addressing the more generic issue of ensuring the smooth coexistence of contactless applications running in different environments – SIM, embedded SIM, embedded Secure Element, Trusted Execution Environment, or simply the handset’s operating system for HCE applications.

In addition, some service providers will start to distribute tickets via smartphones using multi-technology platforms – hiding the complexity of a fragmented market from transport operators and users. This approach addresses the two key concerns of transport operators facing fragmentation: simplicity and reach. Notable examples of such players are Wizway in France and Translink in the Netherlands.

Another approach comprises charging transport fares via contactless payment cards presented at transit gates when entering or leaving the network. This “open loop” system also works when contactless payment cards are virtualised on mobile phones – be it on the SIM card or via ApplePay, SamsungPay, AndroidPay etc. This elegant solution removes the cost of issuing specific transportation cards and provides broad reach in markets where contactless payments are mainstream. At the same time, it requires all the transit readers to be modified. It can safely be assumed that “open loop” and ticket-based systems will coexist for a long time.

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