JR East Passengers Travel Freely with Mobile Suica and NFC

Railways are a key mode of transportation in Japan, carrying nearly 7.3 billion passengers nationwide annually. With that large volume, Japan has long been at the forefront of global efforts to make rail travel as swift, easy, and convenient as possible.

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JR East turned to NFC to make public transport more open, versatile, and interoperable.

As Tokyo prepares to host the Summer Olympics in 2020, Japan’s National Tourism Board has set a goal of doubling the number of tourists visiting Japan from 20 million in 2015 to 40 million by 2020. This will put an even greater burden on the already crowded public transport infrastructure throughout the country.

The East Japan Railway Company (JR East) has spent the past 15 years working to make the rail transportation experience easier and more convenient for all riders. JR East has recently turned to NFC technology to make public transport more open, versatile, and interoperable for both regular PT riders and foreign visitors nationwide.

Mobile Suica supports adding and checking balances, purchasing passes, and high-speed rail ticketing.

In 2001, JR East introduced the Suica contactless smartcard. Suica (its name stands for “super intelligent urban card”) is a FeliCa-based, prepaid contactless fare card that works on trains, subways, and buses. It also functions as a payment card, enabling users to purchase products at more than 350,000 places, such as retail shops, vending machines, and kiosks.

As smartphone use grew in Japan, JR East leaders saw an opportunity to build on the success of the Suica card by enabling it on mobile phones.

“We wanted to improve our Suica card service to enable a more innovative, mobile phone-based service,” said Mr. Hajime Yamada, General Manager of JR East. “We envisioned a solution that would support functions that smartcards couldn’t offer, including adding and checking balances, purchasing commuter passes, and enabling ticketing of high-speed rail anywhere, anytime.”

The result was Mobile Suica. It was introduced originally as a FeliCa-based service in 2006 on mobile wallet-enabled phones, with secure data stored in the embedded FeliCa secure element. With Mobile Suica, there is no need to buy tickets from a vending machine; users simply touch their phones to the ticket gates and their fares are calculated and settled when they exit. Within two years, JR East reported that there were one million Mobile Suica users.

In 2011, JR East expanded the Mobile Suica service to NFC-enabled Android smartphones. Android phones account for approximately half of all smartphones in Japan.

With Android and Apple Pay support, Mobile Suica is now available to virtually all smartphone users in Japan.

Enabling Mobile Suica on Android devices doubled the number of Mobile Suica users. Today, there are 1.9 million Mobile Suica members on Android phones.

JR East saw a number of advantages in bringing Mobile Suica to the Android platform with NFC.

“NFC technology allows a user to have multiple services on a single mobile phone, so Mobile Suica can work side-by-side with other e-money services, such as Rakuten Edy, nanaco, and WAON,” noted Mr. Yamada. “And because NFC is a global standard, it enlarges the number of potential users for Mobile Suica.”

The latter point is an important one for JR East, which is working to achieve public transport interoperability throughout Japan. Mobile Suica is already accepted by the fare systems of other Japanese transit operators, including the greater Tokyo area’s PASMO and JR West’s ICOCA. Eventually, JR East hopes to make Mobile Suica available to tourists.

In September of 2016, support for Suica was greatly expanded when Apple announced that it was launching Apple Pay in Japan – specifically to work with Suica and JR East. With the iPhone accounting for roughly half the market share of smartphones in Japan, Apple Pay’s support has the potential to double the use of Suica on mobile phones across the country.

NFC will enable door-to-door, one-stop service across the transport ecosystem.

With Mobile Suica users adding a 50% greater e-money balance than Suica card users, JR East has an expanded vision for the future of Mobile Suica.

“We hope to realize ‘door-to-door, one-stop service’ across multiple services, including Mobile Suica, the Suica point app, the JR East information app, railroad reservation service, long-distance shuttle bus service, rental car reservation service, taxi reservation service, and route-finding service,” said Mr. Yamada. “The NFC Forum has helped us by providing an international standard technology and by enlarging the number of potential Mobile Suica users to include people visiting Japan.


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