Transport for London Calls for Faster NFC SIMs

Dec 28 2010

NFC transit ticketing is one of the most highly anticipated applications for NFC phones, especially in such regions as Europe, where the infrastructure of contactless readers is already in place in many cities.

And in Europe, the drive is strongest by mobile operators to run secure applications on SIM cards in the NFC phones.

But according to one of the premier transit operators in Europe, Transport for London, transaction times are still too slow to consider putting its application, Oyster, onto SIM cards.

"Until we see implementations of NFC that allows us to get repeatable transaction times within 500 milliseconds, this is going to be a concern for us," Will Judge, Transport for London head of future ticketing, told NFC Times.

And that 500 milliseconds limit appears to be a compromise on the part of the authority. It is still much slower than the 200 to 300 milliseconds the agency gets with its Oyster cards. And it would prefer transaction times no slower than 350 milliseconds with NFC phones or with the open-loop bank cards it plans to accept.

Any move to NFC by Transport for London is complicated by the fact it is switching its Oyster application to more secure Mifare DESFire technology from Mifare Classic, which was the subject of well-publicized hacks in 2008. Transport for London is also the biggest transit agency to date to announce it will accept payment of fares directly from credit, debit and prepaid contactless bank cards, planned to begin in early 2012 on London buses. In addition, Oyster supports a number of fare rules and discounts.

Both DESFire and bank applications, such as MasterCard PayPass and Visa payWave, take longer than the speedy Mifare Classic cards. But even with the current crop of bank cards, the authority is confident it could see transaction times of less than 500 milliseconds, said Brian Dobson, future ticketing project systems manager for Transport for London.

That is not true yet for either Oyster or bank applications on SIMs. And tests of Oyster on SIMs, while conducted a year ago, show there is a long way to go.

Those tests revealed transaction times averaging about 950 milliseconds, said Dobson. Some came in at a little less than 900 milliseconds while others were just above 1 second, depending on whether it was an entry or exit transaction and what Oyster fare discount was applied on the particular card. The tests were conducted with early DESFire SIMs. It’s not clear why the transit authority has not conducted more recent Oyster-SIM tests, or if it has conducted tests of open-loop bank payment of fares from NFC SIMs.

Keeping the Flow
Speed is essential for Transport for London, especially on the crowded London Underground. Other tests conducted by the authority determined that transaction speeds of more than 350 milliseconds would interrupt the flow of passengers through turnstiles at busy stations. While the agency is shooting for this speed or less, it has since increased the maximum it would accept to 500 milliseconds, apparently to accommodate open-loop bank cards.

The agency is pinning its hopes on a new generation of smart card chips coming out to increase speeds, both for bank payment cards–which the authority hopes to use to phase out Oyster–and for SIMs. That includes the SmartMX2 From NXP Semiconductors, designed to run multiple applications securely and with greater speed. The product, however, would be used for embedded chips in bank cards and NFC phones, not SIMs.

"The response time is still a major constraint that has to be addressed to move TfL (Transport for London) from doing (NFC) pilots to full production support," Dobson told NFC Times, who said the authority does not yet "have plans to commit to putting Oyster on a SIM."

The authority’s focus now is moving to acceptance of open-loop payment of fares from dual-interface chip-and-PIN bank cards. But it will continue to accept and issue some Oyster cards and would likely need to eventually put Oyster on SIMs.

But the unacceptable speed at present means it is unlikely an Oyster application will be part of the commercial launch of NFC services in London by mobile operator Orange UK and its Everything Everywhere joint venture, expected in the first part of 2011. If true, the absence of the popular Oyster application could limit the appeal of the new offer. The telco, working with Barclays bank unit Barclaycard, wants to put NFC applications on SIM cards. After the transit authority begins accepting open-loop payment, commuters could tap their phones to pay fares with bank applications on SIMs, assuming the payment-card schemes have certified the SIMs to carry the applications. 

Other transit agencies also will be asked to put their applications on SIMs, including a small but growing number moving from Mifare Classic to DESFire or Mifare Plus, a companion product that is also more secure than Classic.

It’s not clear from interviews the reasons for the slower performance of DESFire on SIMs compared with cards or even with embedded chips in phones. It may be software on the SIMs or the connection between the SIM and NFC chip. But Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors, owner of Mifare Technology and a provider of NFC chips that support the single-wire protocol connection between the SIM and NFC chip, said the connection should not slow things down.

"What I can say, architecturally, there is no reason it should be slower on the SIM than the embedded secure element," Henri Ardevol, vice president and general manager of secure transactions for NXP, told NFC Times.

Representatives from France-based Gemalto, which supplies DESFire SIMs, noted that the Transport for London tests were conducted some time ago.

"I think we are getting much better performance," said Rémi de Fouchier, senior vice president, trusted services management, at Gemalto. "If your requirement is (that) it is as fast a contactless card, then there is a big challenge."

More Demand for DESFire
But he said the speed would be acceptable to transit fare-collection operators, and the transaction times are within the requirements of Transport for London.

Rival SIM vendor Oberthur Technologies along with chip maker STMicroelectronics earlier this month announced they, too, would offer a DESFire-enabled SIM for NFC phones. And a growing number of cities are adopting DESFire for their transit cards, including Toronto, Bangkok, Madrid and Sydney. They might later need to support the technology on NFC phones.

Most NFC trials of transit ticketing have been conducted with the applications running on embedded secure chips in the phones, not on SIMs.

But a precommercial pilot being conducted by French mobile operators and service providers in Nice runs the local transit application from Veolia Transport on SIM cards, and there haven’t been complaints about transaction speeds. Update: A representative from Veolia told NFC Times that transaction times in Nice with the transit operator's BPass application on the SIM are running much less than 500 milliseconds. "In fact, you cannot feel the difference between a (transit) card and BPass," he said. End update

The pilot is being conducted in a less hurried environment than the metro, on buses and trams, and uses a transit application based on the Calypso standard. At present, fewer than 3,000 NFC phones are in use for the pilot.

SIM-based transit ticketing will become important when NFC rolls out, especially where GSM mobile operators hold sway. Many of them are convinced that hosting payment and ticketing applications on their SIMs will be key to their ability to earn revenue from enabling NFC services.

And industry vendors, for their part, say their products will not slow commuters down.

Transport for London is not yet convinced, however, with Judge, the future ticketing head, even suggesting telcos might want to consider dropping the idea of putting transit applications on SIM cards.

"They’ve (transactions) got to be faster, and the people who will have to give way are the operators," he said.

Given the revenue possibilities they see with NFC, telcos are unlikely to drop the idea of SIM-based applications–though they would consider hosting applications on embedded chips in NFC phones if they control the chips. 

It’s more likely they’ll be working to increase the speed of the NFC-enabled SIM chips they issue and the software implementations on the cards.


Article comments

golfman Dec 21 2010

This is critical issue in deed. We face same neck problem in China.

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