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Hong Kong underground gets pay-by-bonk

Octopus walks where Oyster fears to tread

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The Octopus card, used to pay for tubes, buses, ferries and trams in Hong Kong, is now available as an NFC app for download onto an operator SIM, making pay-by-bonk a reality in the Chinese administrative area.

The app will only run on a handful of Sony phones, and NFC player Gemalto is providing 5,000 new NFC-enabled SIM cards, but as the app is simply an instance of the already-popular (FeliCa-based*) Octopus card, the supporting infrastructure is already in place so users can top up their cards – and spend money – in thousands of locations.

Octopus is everything London's Oyster card tried to be, but while Oyster has been hugely successful for travellers, Octopus successfully broke out of its niche and is used to pay for taxies, snacks, and entertainment venues. Of course, it's all pre-paid, which makes processing – and porting to a phone – much easier.

Attempts to take Oyster out of the transport system have failed entirely, not least because the pay-by-bonk functionality promised by Oyster is already built into the vast majority of UK credit and debit cards, with use climbing steadily, if slowly.

Transport for London would like to replace Oyster with normal credit cards, getting rid if the prepaid element entirely. That would mean one tapping a credit or debit card on the gate and be billed for the journey. On London buses that's happening now, but for the tube the process of checking the balance and deducting the variable fare still take too long (up to a second, compared to TfL's target of under 300ms).

Putting Oyster onto an NFC phone would be simple, easier than the FeliCa-based Octopus, but there's no real interest in doing so.

But in Hong Kong there's no reason not to, and the question isn't why Octopus has been put into an NFC phone but why it has taken so very long to happen. ®

* FeliCa is a Japanese contactless payment system comparable to NFC, only much older and successful. The NFC standard was expanded to encompass it but really it's quite different from NFC. Read more here.

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