St. Petersburg Metro to Trial Contactless-Mobile Ticketing

The St. Petersburg Metro in Russia will launch a trial this month enabling riders to tap their phones to pay for fares, with plans calling for a rollout to users of all St Petersburg public transport in 2011.

The trial will use SIM overlay chips and flexible antennas, which users would wrap around their phone batteries. That would turn their phones into contactless ticketing devices, said Patrick Henzen, director of business development for U.S.-based Ambiq Technology, which is providing the contactless platform for the project and leading the implementation.

Henzen, a former regional marketing director and former business development manager for NFC at NXP Semiconductors, said Ambiq tested a number of bridge technologies and even some NFC phones. The trial is expected to use SIM overlays with flexible antennas from Czech Republic-based Bladox and similar devices from one other supplier.

Many of the devices the firm evaluated did not work on readers in the St. Petersburg Metro, which uses low-end Mifare technology. Neither NFC phones nor contactless microSD cards, which Ambiq also tested, worked well with the readers.

“As soon as you brought a phone to this reader, the whole thing collapsed,” said Henzen, speaking at a recent Alternative NFC Solutions conference in Taipei organized by the Asia Pacific Smart Card Association. “Basically, all solutions, even with big antennas, even with small antennas, the whole thing (communication) literally collapsed,” he said. “I don’t know how typical this is for infrastructure elsewhere.”

But he said the flexible antenna worked well, and the performance of contactless microSDs has improved greatly the past several months. Project backers could shift to microSDs over the next 12 months.

Henzen said the Bank St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg transportation committee were backing the trial. The bank would enable consumers to top up their transit purses over the mobile network, among other services. It is expected that Ambiq would share in the revenue from the top-ups with the bank. Other banks could join and they might one day launch contactless-mobile payment at the point of sale. Taiwan-based Toro is likely to provide the mobile phone application.

Despite the application connecting to the SIM, no mobile operators will be involved in the trial. But Russian telco MegaFon is reportedly interested in the concept.

Ambiq has also been in discussions with the giant Moscow Metro to offer services, Henzen said.

Any rollout of contactless-mobile ticketing service could run into the millions of units, he said. In St. Petersburg alone, transit operators handle more than 6 million rides daily, he noted.

“We need to find a company that can supply that capability,” he said.

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