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Dialog Touch Travel Pass: The Future Of Sri Lankan Transport System?

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Few months back Sri Lanka reached a new milestone in the travel industry, with the deployment of the “Touch Travel Pass” – an NFC enabled contactless smart card that can be topped up and used to pay the bus fare. It became the first ever initiative to bring NFC technology to the transport sector in Sri Lanka.  Lanka Private Bus Owners Association took the bold step to propose the said system to the National Transport Board and the first phase was launched last June.

Sri Lanka’s mobile giant, Dialog Axiata PLC joined as the principal sponsor for the project and along with Lankan based contactless payment specialist, Orik Payment Solutions. They decided to deploy NXP’s MIFARE DESFire technology for this secure contactless payments and transport ticketing system. Initially the system was introduced on the 138 bus route and few weeks ago, the project got expanded with more bus routes (122, 125 etc) being included. During the course of this year, Dialog has planned to roll out the system throughout the Western Province and eventually nationwide, for the benefit of an estimated 20.6 million Sri Lankan commuters.

NFC and Travel Industry

Near Field Communication (NFC) on a wider scope enables wireless transactions and data transfers between two end points. Over the years, NFC has come along a rough journey filled with love and hate from various entities. For example Google has been a strong backer for the technology. From Android Beam to Google Wallet, the company has tried hard to push the technology to the consumer market. Google wallet payment is accepted by many merchants in the US. In New Jersey you can pay your transport fares via Google Wallet. But whether these NFC implementations have been a success, is not an easy question to answer; for the availability and adaptation levels vary in different countries. On the other hand, Apple, which is pushing iBeacon – a possible competitor to NFC technology, has always been a criticizer of NFC implementations. Leaving these aside, a recent report says that in 2014 around 416 million handsets will ship with built in NFC modules. The target is to get the number to 1.2 billion by 2018.

If you can remember, Dialog launched an NFC sticker sometime ago to manage their Star Points system

With these interesting developments, some experts say “2014 will be the year of NFC”. Well, we may need to wait to see the progress. As you can see, smartphones have played a big role in the rise of NFC. But the availability of NFC enabled handsets is still quite limited in many markets. For example, you don’t get NFC in feature phones mostly. iOS devices don’t come with the NFC module.

World Shipments of NFC Enabled Cellular Handsets

Smartphones are not the only option to take the benefits of NFC to the masses. If you can remember, Dialog launched an NFC Touch sticker sometime ago to manage their Star Points system. The stickers come pre-programmed for the mobile number and can be pasted on the phone or wallet and can be used at the merchant’s POS machines to earn and redeem Star Points, without the need to do the process manually. The NFC enabled touch-cards are another way to do it.

How does “Touch Travel Pass” work?

The Touch Travel Pass card is available for purchase at merchants along the deployed routes. They’re priced at Rs.200, that includes a refundable deposit of Rs.175 (i.e you can claim it back if you decide to stop using the card.). After buying the card, the commuter will have to top it up with credit (just like reloading a prepaid mobile number). The merchants have been educated on how to handle the recharges. Dialog also plans to expand the recharging facility to 14,000 eZcash recharge points around the country, along with the expansion of the project.

After buying the card, the commuter will have to top it up with credit (just like reloading a prepaid mobile number)

The merchants will utilize the special POS machines for this process. And once recharged, you can start using it on the bus. You can pay for the bus tickets by holding the  Touch Travel Pass near the special POS equipment carried by the Bus conductors. The card does not need to be tapped on the machine. Holding it close to the machine (around 2 or 3 inches) would do. According to Western provincial Council Transport Minister, “with the expansion of this system, Commuters’ frequent complaint of not receiving balance money properly could be addressed”.

On the consumer point of view, that’s the most useful part. For the bus owners, this method gives the opportunity to monitor the amount collected by the conductors, since the amounts are automatically updated on their bank account. Further more, this will also mean the owners can show this “daily income report” to the banks whenever they need to obtain loans. (Banks do expect you to show them you have a steady income).

Dialog has produced a nice video to explain how the Touch Travel Pass works in the bus. Check it out below.

Immediate Challenges

Technology improves the way of living in urban towns, like Colombo. But this will also bring challenges to both the involved parties and consumers. For example, there are lot of parties involved in this project. From Government bodies, transport associations, mobile service provider and the technology provider along with the top-up merchants and the bus conductor. So whom does the commuter reach to when he/she encounters an issue with the card or payment? As of now, Dialog has provided a dedicated “Touch Service” hotline through 1415, which has an option for the Touch Travel Pass related information. But how solutions will be provided through this service and the time frame, are still unknown. I tried contacting the number to ask how it works, and I was told they don’t have any details as of now, since the project is still in trial phase.

As of now, Dialog has provided a dedicated “Touch Service” hotline through 1415, which has an option for the Touch Travel Pass related information

Educating the conductors and merchants will also be a time consuming challenge. According to sources, bus owners are provided with loan facilities to purchase the ticket machines needed for this system with the coordination of the People’s Bank. It is also learnt that so far 840 bus owners have applied to purchase the ticket machine. It will be necessary to train the conductors accordingly. I’m sure Dialog is aware of this challenge, since they have already faced similar ones when they launched the eZcash payment system.

It has always been pointed out that NFC lacks standardization. This also has brought security concerns over time. There has been incidents where security experts have pointed out how these smart cards can be exploited using everyday technology. But it is also undeniable that over the years, the security aspect of NFC has improved a lot. And security may not be an immediate issue in Sri Lanka, at least until the cards begin to be used for transactions beyond purchasing bus tickets.

The Future

In addition to transport ticketing, Touch Travel Pass can be improved to work as a payment solution in shops and taxis in the near future. It’s the way to go forward, I guess. Specially this will be useful when you travel in taxis (meter tuk-tuks) where passengers usually end up without having change money. It will function more like a debit card (or like the rechargeable Sampath web card?) without the need of your signature.

As a frequent train commuter, I’d really like to see this in railway stations

One should also note this is more suitable for small payments which you perform on the move. As a frequent train commuter, I’d really like to see this in railway stations. Commuters spend a lot of time in queues purchasing tickets and end up missing the train they had to take. This will also be a great service for the tourists visiting Sri Lanka, who are most of the time unaware as to whether they are paying the right amount, and often get cheated while commuting.  It is also planned to use this technology to enable NFC-based mobile phone ticketing in the near future.

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