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Irish National Transport Authority Makes Leap Card Go Farther with NFC

The Republic of Ireland is a land of 4.7 million people scattered over an area of 27,000 square miles – from densely populated Dublin to the remote country lanes of County Leitrim. For years, the island nation’s transport needs have been served by a patchwork of public and private bus lines, light rail trams, and a national rail system. That nationwide network began to come together in 2011, when Ireland’s National Transport Authority (NTA) introduced its Integrated Ticketing Smart Card – marketed as the Leap Card – in 2011.

Now accepted by 14 major public and private transport providers across Ireland, the Leap Card was an immediate success, largely replacing magnetic stripe tickets and other schemes and making public transport interoperability a reality. The NTA has since rolled out a succession of ticketing products, and recently celebrated the sale of the 2 millionth Leap Card. Riders have taken more than 300 million journeys using the smartcard, and in 2015, Leap accounted for 47% of all public transport journeys in Ireland.

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The challenge: provide more current information and easier top-ups

A mobile-optimizing website wasn’t sufficient because customers’ expectations were changing, and in the age of mobile comms, apps and downloads, the idea that you’d order something and have to wait to collect it 12 to 24 hours later is just ridiculous

One distinguishing aspect of the Leap Card system is that the smart card itself contains the master record of balance and recent journey history for each passenger. While this ensures that card readers can check for sufficient credit so a passenger can travel, transactions are only transmitted to back office systems when transport system devices are able to communicate. In the case of buses, which are offline most of the day, that can mean processing delays of up to 24 hours. As a result, Leap Card users cannot easily get up-to-the-minute balances.

Top-ups and ticket purchases were another inconvenience. While passengers could add funds to their accounts via a website, the only way for that information to be loaded onto their Leap Cards was to visit one of the 740 Payzone point-of-sale shops or at Irish Rail or Luas light rail ticket vending machines.

“People were asking, ‘If I can top up my Leap Card online, why doesn’t the money I put on it make it to my Leap Card?” said Barry Dorgan, Head of Ticketing at NTA. “A mobile-optimizing website wasn’t sufficient because customers’ expectations were changing, and in the age of mobile comms, apps and downloads, the idea that you’d order something and have to wait to collect it 12 to 24 hours later is just ridiculous.”

In 2013, the NTA began looking at more user-friendly and convenient ways to enable passengers to securely query their Leap Card accounts for updated information and get a faster response on top-ups and ticket purchases.

The solution: “Transparent NFC” connects the card

The bigger question was how best to take advantage of NFC technologically. The NTA team wanted a secure, easy to use solution that would work with existing cards and card readers across multiple transport systems.

By early 2014, NTA’s ticketing team had determined that the most promising way to address the issues was to use near field communication (NFC). NFC was rapidly becoming a standard feature on smartphones, and by 2014, smartphone adoption in Ireland had grown to 2.7 million users , approximately half of whom were using Android-based devices. That meant a sizeable number of Leap Card users would be able to take advantage of it, and that number would grow as NFC adoption grew.

The bigger question was how best to take advantage of NFC technologically. The NTA team wanted a secure, easy to use solution that would work with existing cards and card readers across multiple transport systems.

“The way in which we had designed our card system and its security was not conducive to just putting the card on the phone,” said Dorgan. “Through one of our suppliers, we became aware of a solution that was operating in New Zealand. When we learned what was behind that approach, we realized it was a viable approach for us, given the constraints we had in our technology.”

The solution was called Snapper and had been developed for public transport in New Zealand, although it used a different smart card and encryption key approach from the Leap Card. In the Snapper scheme, NFC on the smartphone is used as a conduit to the card, reading and writing to the card to update the master balance and user journey history. Users could top up their accounts via a mobile app, then tap their smartcards to their phones and have them immediately updated via NFC.

“Why would we use the phone as a conduit? Why wouldn’t we just put the Leap Card into the phone?” asked Dorgan. “We looked at that and there were two major factors that mitigated against it. The first was the technical limitations of getting the card into the phone, which would have required a much, much larger investment from us. The other factor was ergonomics; the ticket machines that we have are not designed for holding a phone to.”

The NTA issued a Request for Tender in May 2014, responses were received in June, and the contract was awarded to Snapper and its European partner, Vix Technology, in August. A proof of concept was delivered in January 2015 and the broader rollout took place one year later.

NTA calls its Leap Card scheme “Transparent NFC.” NFC enables the smart card to be read and updated. Users interact with the solution via a mobile app. The Transparent NFC server provides the functionality to support the read/write use cases, including the capability to authenticate to all types of Leap Card. The command is constructed on the server and executed on the mobile application. The encryption keys required to perform the read/write operation are retrieved from the secure Hardware Security Module (HSM). Nothing is constructed on the mobile app and no encryption keys are required to be stored on the mobile app, thereby ensuring a very secure solution for the user and the scheme. Key components of the solution are hosted in the cloud by Amazon Web Services, which scales automatically to guarantee performance during peak times.

The results: a growing number of satisfied users

NTA calls its Leap Card scheme “Transparent NFC.” NFC enables the smart card to be read and updated. Users interact with the solution via a mobile app. The Transparent NFC server provides the functionality to support the read/write use cases, including the capability to authenticate to all types of Leap Card.

NTA’s “Transparent NFC” solution has been a success by any measure.

“It was a slow burner in terms of adoption,” said Dorgan. “Because it was Android-only initially, there was a lot of push-back from iPhone users. But we saw the number of installations grow steadily from zero to 90,000 installs from January to October.”

More importantly, passengers have become ongoing users of the solution, which has received reviews averaging more than 3.5 stars at the Google Play store. By May, top-ups using the NFC app had exceeded €800,000 per month.

“The usage figures for November are in and it’s over one and a half million Euros,” Dorgan noted. “It just keeps going up because customers just love the convenience.”

Looking ahead

More importantly, passengers have become ongoing users of the solution, which has received reviews averaging more than 3.5 stars at the Google Play store. By May, top-ups using the NFC app had exceeded €800,000 per month.

Barry Dorgan has high hopes for the future of NFC and the Leap Card.

“We see the future as involving much greater use of mobile and NFC,” he said. “We want to support greater customer choice by offering customers the ability to identify themselves and pay for public transport directly using their phone as an identifier. We also want to provide the option to use Apple Pay and Samsung Pay to pay directly, as well.”

Dorgan appreciates how organizations like the NFC Forum are guiding the industry toward public transport interoperability.

“The NFC Forum plays a hugely important role,” he said. “We’ve always struggled as an authority of a relatively small country. It’s very difficult for us to influence the market because of our size. We see huge importance to the role of the NFC Forum bringing together expertise and promoting interoperability across the whole globe. That’s hugely important to us, because in the longer term, that means it’s much easier to integrate, much easier to operate, to offer different services to customers, a better choice of suppliers, and a more efficient market. It really is critical to us.

“When an independent body like the NFC Forum comes along and not only specifies an interoperability standard, but also does accreditation and testing to that standard, that’s very, very powerful.”