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MBTA Gets Onboard With Mobile Ticketing

The MBTA, greater Boston’s public transportation system, just announced plans to deploy a mobile barcode-based ticketing solution across its entire commuter rail network. This solution, which will operate on Android, iOS and Blackberry devices, is expected to be operational by year’s end and will facilitate the ticketing process both for passengers and conductors. While passengers will benefit from an additional, always-accessible fare purchasing option, conductors’ jobs will be facilitated by reduced ticket punching and cash collection duties.

Mobile ticketing is not a new concept, despite that its relative nonexistence in the US suggests otherwise. In fact, mobile ticketing solutions enabled by mobile barcode and NFC have existed for years in other regions, including Europe and Asia. As is often the case with the adoption of new technologies (or, in this case, technology applications) the US is simply a laggard. In fact, some media sources claim that the MBTA initiative is the first of its kind in the country.

From a technology selection/system specifications perspective, we are not surprised the MBTA selected a mobile barcode-based solution rather than one that leverages NFC. Although NFC is certainly gaining traction as an enabling technology for contactless ticketing applications, the fact is that most consumers, particularly in the US, are not yet familiar with the technology—never mind own an NFC-enabled smartphone. Mobile barcode scanning, however, is a technology that is both highly accessible and very familiar to consumers.

Keep in mind, however, that mobile barcode has its limitations, with a key issue (in the context of transportation ticketing) being throughput speed. In the case of this MBTA solution, throughput is a non-issue, because the system will be used exclusively on commuter trains, where there are no turnstiles and fares are collected onboard. However, should the MBTA evaluate mobile ticketing for its subway and/or bus networks in the future, we think a mobile barcode-based solution would be a poor choice.

Whereas subway/bus networks have higher ridership volumes and passenger queue points (i.e., turnstiles on the subway, door-based readers on the bus), a mobile barcode-based solution would considerably slow throughout and create longer queues. Just imagine the time required to take out a smartphone, open up the MBTA app and then display and scan a barcode—relative to the contactless and paper tickets currently used, this would certainly reduce throughput, not to mention create a requirement for barcode imagers/scanners at all ticketing portals. In the case of subway and bus ticketing, NFC-based solutions, which can leverage the existing HF contactless ticketing readers in place throughout many public transport networks (including the MBTA), are a more logical choice.

Early NFC ticketing pilots are already underway here in the US (and the rest of the world), such as the one led by New York City’s MTA in partnership with Nokia. As NFC smartphones increasingly reach the hands of consumers over the next 24-36 months, we expect NFC ticketing activity will gain momentum. In the interim, however, considering the respective strengths and weaknesses of mobile barcode and NFC, we expect ongoing mobile ticketing opportunities will exist for vendors utilizing both of these technologies. 

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