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Tube bosses: 'Wireless tickets too slow, we think'

TfL hasn't actually tested NFC tech since 2009

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Transport for London's director of customer experience thinks wireless payments are still too slow for London's Tube, though he admits TfL hasn't tested them since 2009.

Speaking at the Open Mobile Summit, TfL's Shashi Verma told the assembled that radio-based NFC payments were just too slow for the underground, but when buttonholed by NFC Times he admitted that the organisation hadn't looked at the transaction speed for "a few years" and that his words were based on a belief that speeds hadn't improved lately.

London's underground network requires very fast transactions: the existing Oyster Card authenticates passengers in less than 300ms, but Verma apparently believes that linking to the secure element embedded in the mobile operator's SIM slows transaction times beyond the acceptable 500ms.

But it's not just NFC that London's transport system wants, trials have also involved an "open loop" model where a payment is processed at the ticket gate rather than being deducted from a pre-paid balance. It might appear obvious that checking with a bank would take longer, but not to Verma, who thinks the SIM is to blame.

"It might work at Pret a Manger, and it might work at a Krispy Kreme, but it’s not going to work in transport," apparently.

The SIM is where network operators would like to put the secure element necessary to authenticate NFC transactions, and they've even reserved one of the SIM's eight connections for secure communication between the SIM and the NFC radio (using a single wire protocol cunningly named SWP). The SWP is slow, but advocates contend that the quantity of data is so small it doesn't matter, and there are certainly companies claiming that 300ms is easily possible over an SWP connection.

There are alternatives to the SWP, such as embedding the secure element in the handset – as Google has done for its NFC Wallet – but that puts the element under the control of the handset manufacturer (or a partner such as Google), which is where things get political.

Shashi Verma told NFC Times that Transport for London has looked at Google Wallet, but wouldn't be drawn on any details.

If it's the open-loop nature of NFC that is causing problems then putting an Oyster application into the secure element would seem the best solution, but Transport for London wants to bypass Oyster to avoid paying a cut on every top-up. So an NFC version of Oyster would provide travel-by-bonk, but it wouldn't provide more money for Transport for London.

And it's not just the transaction times which annoy Verma, he wants NFC wallets to be easier to install too, claiming that it takes 12 steps to get an NFC wallet working when it should be as easy as downloading an app from iTunes. That complexity is down to the requirement of having to enter all one's banking details into the wallet, of course. But El Reg, has spoken to Barclaycard's head of digital payments, Tom Gregory, who firmly rejected the suggestion that setup complexity is discouraging anyone, pointing out that users only have to do it once and that it's unavoidable.

Which is almost true – if Apple were to launch itself into the mobile payments business, as it surely soon will, then an iTunes download might be all that's needed to start bonking with an iPhone 5.

Shashi Verma certainly believes that until we have that kind of seismic shift then paying by bonk will remain "fiddly and geeky", which bodes badly for those hoping to give up their Oyster card any time soon. ®

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