Embedded SIMs Shake IoT & Smartphone Supply Chains

A few weeks ago, I went to London for a family reunion. Faced with spending a few days with expensive roaming charges on my smartphone, I decided to get a local prepaid Subscriber identity Module (SIM) card. After doing some research online before the trip I found a good offer from the UK's “3” network.  For £10 ($14) I could get 1.1 GB of data and cheap local calls. The only catch is that I needed to go to a local “3” store to get the SIM card.

Next year, I will probably have a new smartphone –my current one is four years old– and I won't need to go to a store or wait for a SIM card in the mail. If I need a new contract, or a temporary service in another country, I will just scan a QR code found on web page or an ad at the airport, provide my personal details and payment information, and download new credentials  to the embedded SIM in my device. That will allow me to continue using the number and service on my home market, and benefit of the rates and new number in another country.

Embedded SIMs have been around for several years in some devices, especially in Machine-to-Machine (M2M) applications such as security and industrial control. Also companies such as Amazon are using embedded SIMs in their Kindle readers and tablets to provide cellular wireless access. But those SIMs are fixed with their original credentials supplied by the manufacturer and thus locked into one network.

Apple has been using a proprietary version of embedded SIM, named Apple SIM, in iPad tablets. It is included in cellular-enabled versions of its iPad Air 2, iPad mini 3, iPad mini 4, and iPad Pro models sold in several countries.  The user activates the tablet on the carrier of his choice, but it can only do it once. When traveling abroad Apple SIM users can choose an additional package from the roaming partners.

During the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the mobile industry association, GSMA, presented the final release of its”GSMA Embedded SIM Specification“. This new type of SIM, similar to the previous design, is integrated in the main circuit of a M2M platform, wearable, tablet or other mobile device, but it has no initial credentials and those can be provisioned over-the-air after the device is activated. Apple is working with the GSMA to implement the new specification in future models of the iPhone and iPad.

The first device on the market using the new GSMA specification is the Samsung Gear S2 smartwatch. Using eSIMs allows Samsung to provide full wireless cellular connectivity to the watch without a standard SIM slot, thus keeping the component count and size down. The eSIM size is only 6 x 5mm or less, instead of the 12,3 x 8,8 mm of a current nano-SIM.

Because the eSIM OTA provisioning is still undergoing final testing, the 3G/4G version of the Samsung smartwatch can only be purchased from the carrier partners. Later, after eSIM wireless provisioning is available, users should be able to switch carriers or get another plan when their contracts are up. Recently IDC forecasted that the worldwide shipments of wearables will surpass 200 million in 2019.

To better understand how the eSIM specification will work in the near future, I talked to Thomas Henze, head of Mobile Access of Deutsche Telekom, during the Mobile Congress. He gave me a quick demonstration of eSIM provisioning using a prototype of a smartphone from one of the top manufacturers. In 10 minutes, he showed me how easy is to add another SIM profile to the phone, revoke it, and the possibility of sharing the same number with different devices, something that can be used to provision eSIMs on vehicles and corporate PBXs.

A few days after the MWC, I had another conversation with Henze to pick his brain about the opportunities of the eSIM. He told me that the industry wants eSIMs to be an important component for new IoT devices, especially the ones aimed at Smart Cities and the Smart Grid. Also Henze believes that wearables, such as the Samsung smartwatch, will be the first recipients of eSIMs while carriers evaluate the impact on the supply chain and the security of the system.

Henze also confirmed that some of the tier-one carriers were initially concerned that eSIMs could bring more competition in the already crowded wireless market. However, those concerned disappear quickly when they realized the benefits and cost savings, as well as new business opportunities, embedded SIMs will provide.

Security is an important component, and the GSMA has indicated that the new standard is at least as secure as the traditional SIM card, if not more robust. The new eSIM specification features the same security and encryption, using 3DES, AES, ECC and RSA algorithms.

What is clear is that the embedded SIM is here to stay and will affect the way M2M devices connect, how consumers choose new contracts and plans, and will change the supply chain for many connected devices. 

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