Smart travel goes mobile with HCE

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 19th, 2017.

The increased adoption of frictionless commerce by public transport operators is a critical prerequisite for the evolution of smart cities. This is precisely why transport operators have steadily replaced paper tickets and tokens with smart cards and contactless payment cards, as well as mobile apps that allow passengers to use their smartphones to conveniently board buses, trains and ferries.

Currently, there are multiple “smart” options available for transport operators seeking to modernize their fare systems, including solutions based on barcodes, EMV contactless bank cards and transport smart cards.


Barcodes provide limited travel data for transit operators compared with smart card-based deployments. In addition, barcode reading capability must be added to existing ticket infrastructure at an extra cost for transport operators. In the UK, for example, buses are fitted with ticket machines that issue paper tickets for passengers paying cash to travel.

Although the machines are also capable of accepting ITSO-based smart cards, they cannot read barcodes without being replaced. Moreover, the multiple proprietary barcode-based ticketing solutions on the market are not interoperable. Consequently, switching suppliers would be a costly proposition for transport operators, as such a move would likely involve replacing hardware yet again. Perhaps most importantly, barcodes are far more susceptible to fraud compared to other solutions, as tickets can be cloned.

EMV contactless bank cards

EMV contactless bank cards contain embedded microprocessors that provide robust transaction security features. In certain transport scenarios, such as with low cost, flat fare single journeys, they offer a convenient option for both transport operators and passengers. As a report authored by GlobalMassTransit notes, transaction speed and customer convenience are top priorities for public transport operators.

Perhaps not surprisingly, transit authorities “are finding it attractive” to adopt EMV-enabled bank cards in an open payment system – with the bank cards themselves used for fare payment. Although quite versatile and secure, mass EMV deployment typically requires the installation of costly infrastructure within a transportation system and offers more of a one size fits all approach rather than one optimized from transport. Passengers wishing to purchase an advance ticket with seat reservation, carnet tickets, as well as travelers who don’t own an EMV bank card, will require an alternative that better fits their requirements.

Transport smart cards

Transport smart cards have been deployed for ticketing systems worldwide, such as the Oyster scheme in London. In addition, the UK government has backed an open ticketing specification known as ITSO which is used extensively across the United Kingdom.

The specification mandates interoperability of infrastructure, back office systems and smart cards across multiple transport operators and multiple modes of transport on a local, regional and national level. Transport smart cards provide banking-level security, store multiple ticket types (useful when a passenger books in advance on a busy rail service) and can be distributed to any demographic. Smart card-based ticketing systems also provide extensive travel data for transport operators, thus enabling them to tailor services and tickets (products) to better accommodate passengers.

HCE for mobile ticketing

Host card emulation (HCE) for mobile ticketing is a software architecture that emulates a traditional tamper-resistant smart card on NFC smartphones. Put simply, HCE enables smartphones to act as a virtual representation of a contactless, transport smart card. This allows passengers to securely use their phone as a travel smart card and virtual ticket wallet. HCE also helps maximize the potential of smartphones as a viable and attractive alternative to issuing plastic smart cards, thus resulting in significant cost savings for transport operators and greater convenience for travelers.

“HCE provides operators with the opportunity to attract and acquire those people not using public transport in a right here, right now use case by utilizing existing transport infrastructure and current mobile technology,” Russell McCullagh, Managing Director, Rambus Ecebs, told Rambus Press. “Moreover, HCE enables operators to offer digital travel wallets to passengers without the lead production time associated with plastic cards. Once an HCE mobile transport app is downloaded, the passenger simply completes a brief registration process and is good to go.”

In addition, says McCullagh, HCE offers new ticket acquiring and provisioning options for transport operators.

“The smartphone expands ticket purchase options beyond ticket vending machines (TVM), self-service kiosks and manned point of sales,” McCullagh explained. “The mobile phone effectively becomes a TVM as well as a virtual ticket wallet.”

It should be noted that Rambus Ecebs recently participated in a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (UK) trial which saw a select group of train staff replace their plastic smart cards with an HCE-based mobile app designed to provision virtual smart cards onto NFC-based smartphones. Participating staff used the app to choose and purchase rail tickets which were subsequently downloaded onto their virtual smart card ticket wallet using Rambus Ecebs’ Remote Ticket Download (RTD) software. A key point is the HCE technology on these smartphones works with existing ITSO-based transport infrastructure.

“In the mobile payments industry, HCE provides a bridge between the cardholder, the point-of-sale (POS) and the service provider, such as an issuing bank,” McCullagh added. “In the transport arena, a similar analogy applies between a passenger (the customer), the gate (at the railway station) and the transport operator. As in a retail environment, HCE does not require any specific hardware changes to the infrastructure nor optimization to support the technology.”

Interested in learning more about HCE? You can check out our article archive on the subject here and our eBook here.

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