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London Oyster Card Chief: NFC Not Ready for Fast-Paced Fare Payment

LONDON – The head of London’s large Oyster card program expressed frustration with the pace of development of NFC, complaining the technology isn’t ready for London transit riders to use to pay fares.

Shashi Verma, director of customer experience for Transport for London, criticized the NFC industry, contending payment from NFC SIM cards isn’t fast enough to enable customers to flow through bustling London Underground turnstiles or onto buses. NFC-based mobile payment also isn’t easy for consumers to set up on their phones, he said.

About eight million customers regularly tap Oyster cards to pay onboard buses, at Underground gates and on other modes of transport, making Oyster one of the largest contactless-payment programs in the world. Verma, who spoke Tuesday at the Open Mobile Summit in London, said he was taking a “contrarian view” during his presentation to try to spur the industry into action.

“Right now, we have eight million customers in London who are attuned to using contactless payment on the transport network every single day,” said Verma. “You can’t imagine a better customer network than this if you want to launch NFC. There isn’t a better opportunity than this anywhere in the world outside of East Asia.

He compared what he sees as the present situation with Transport for London’s first public NFC trial, launched in November 2007 with mobile operator O2 UK. This pilot put the Oyster application and a separate Visa payWave application issued by Barclaycard onto an embedded chip in an early NFC phone, the Nokia 6131.

The trial boasted a 92% customer acceptance rate, according to user surveys, said Verma.

“So why isn’t a product with a 92% acceptance rate not on the market five years later?” he asked. “That’s the question to focus on here.”

Verma contends that when mobile operators moved to standardize SIM cards to run NFC applications and pushed them as the de facto secure element in NFC phones, transaction times suffered.

Transport for London needs a transaction speed of no more than 500 milliseconds to keep customers from having to break their stride as they flow through the London Underground’s crowded gates and also when they tap to pay onboard busy buses, he said.

The speed enables at least 26 customers to pass through the metro gates per minute, which several London Underground stations now handle during their daily peak hour with the Mifare-based Oyster card. Oyster offers sub-300-millisecond transaction times.

“The problem we have, when you take the Nokia 6131, we did achieve the 500 milliseconds, actually we did a lot better than that; but then the standards changed,” he said. “In 2008, in the battle between handset manufacturers and network operators, the NFC element moved to the SIM card.”

Slower on SIMs?
Transport for London is planning to accept open-loop credit and debit cards for fares, but missed a deadline to have 8,500 buses ready to accept the contactless EMV bank cards from foreign visitors and locals attending the Summer Olympics starting in July.

Verma now says the buses will be ready later this year and on the London Underground toward the end of next year to accept cards supporting such contactless EMV applications as Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass.

Verma told NFC Times after his presentation that Transport for London hasn’t tested NFC SIMs with payment applications in a couple of years, but doesn’t believe the speed has improved. He indicated the tests were of open-loop payment applications on SIM cards, not Oyster.

The application Transport for London tested for six months starting in late 2007 was Mifare Classic, which is a much simpler application than contactless EMV, so it would run faster.

Still, Verma, who has headed the Oyster card program for the past six years, is blaming the SIM card, which he believes is slowing things down in NFC phones.

SIM vendors, however, insist their products can achieve 500-millisecond transaction times.

And a smart card industry source told NFC Times that putting payment on SIM cards with a single-wire protocol connection to the NFC chip should only add about 10% to transaction times.

A few transit fare-collection operators are already running fare payment on NFC SIM cards, including the T-money scheme in South Korea and, more recently, the Snapper service in New Zealand. These are not EMV open-loop applications, but they support Java Card, like bank payment on SIM cards do.

Transport for London moved last year from Mifare Classic to more secure Mifare DESFire cards.

A source with the authority has told NFC Times that Mifare DESFire on a SIM would likely meet the authority’s speed requirements.

Even if SIM-based EMV payment on NFC phones would not be fast enough for customers to pay fares at busy stations, that doesn’t mean consumers couldn’t use these applications to make purchases at retailers, including quick-serve restaurants, said Verma. But for Transport for London’s purposes, that isn’t good enough, he said.

“It might work at Pret A Manger (sandwich shop), and it might work at a Krispy Kreme, but it’s not going to work in transport,” he said. “This is a critical part of the customer experience.”

Verma confirmed that Transport for London has tried out fare collection in a Google Wallet, but declined to say what the results of its tests were or whether the authority planned to work with Google if the Web giant launches its wallet in the UK. He would only say the agency is “experimenting with the Google handsets,” among other devices.

‘Fiddly and Geeky’
Meanwhile, Verma also found fault with the number of steps he believes is needed to set up mobile payment on NFC phones. That includes consumers obtaining both NFC phones and NFC-enabled SIM cards. He asked why the process can’t be easier, “just like going to the iTunes store (to) get the app, and it comes to the phone.”

“If you need to go through 12 steps to set it up on the phone, that’s a nonstarter,” he told NFC Times.

He contends that the industry’s answer to getting applications onto SIM cards and other secure elements–the trusted service manager–doesn’t help matters.

“The TSM is supposed to be the box that sorts outs all of the multiple players in the industry,” he said during his presentation. “But actually, there are more TSMs than any other form of player in the industry right now. And they’re not convinced that any of it works. Until it does, again, NFC will remain fiddly and remain geeky.”

Verma, nonetheless, said Transport for London sees the value of NFC. Among other features, NFC phones enable customers to view such information as trip logs and account balances, on the screen, which they obviously can’t do with a card.

He said he’s hopeful the industry will make improvements to the speed of NFC transactions as it has with contactless EMV bank cards, which five years ago also didn’t achieve a 500-millisecond transaction speed.

“I’ve never given up on NFC to be honest,” he said. “I’d love it to work. I would be the first to market if we could really make it work. But it doesn’t work (for Transport for London) right now.”

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