Despite all the buzz about 5G networks, standards, trials, and current deals, embedded SIMs were also a hot topic during the conference and was the theme of one of the GSMA’s seminars at the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC).
The Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) controls authentication, identity and security on a chosen mobile network, effectively operating as a trusted ‘gatekeeper’ and enabling us to securely access the network and use our mobile devices. SIMs have been used by mobile carriers since the introduction of GSM (2G) in 1991.
SIMs have appeared over the years in many form factors, from a full credit card size that the user had to insert in a handset, to the current “nano” SIM that most of the recent smartphones use. The full specification is known as Universal Integrated Circuit Card (UICC). The eUICC (embedded) is the proper name for the new generation of SIMs that cannot be removed from the mobile device.
Two years ago, during the Mobile World Congress, the GSMA presented the final release of its Embedded SIM Specification, enabling operators and manufacturers to start using the spec to provision credentials for the growing number of connected devices worldwide.
This new type of SIM, which can be as small as a pin head, is integrated into the main circuit of a smartphone, router, M2M platform, wearable, tablet, sensor, or other mobile devices. However, it has no initial credentials. Those can be provisioned over the air after the device is activated.
“Embedded SIM in IoT means that manufacturers of connected devices like connected cars, smart meters, eHealth devices and more deliver devices with a SIM already embedded and ready to be registered on the network. This enables simple and seamless mobile connections for all kinds of devices,” says the GSMA white paper on eSIMM.
During the GSMA seminar, Per Lindberg, Senior Business Developer at Volvo Cars, explained how Volvo is starting to use eSIMs to provision the connectivity of their new cars, so customers can use their existing mobile subscriptions to add cellular access to the car’s connected features.
At the 2016 Mobile World Congress, Thomas Henze, head of Mobile Access at Product Innovation of Deutsche Telekom, 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 it was to add another SIM profile to the phone and then revoke it, and explained the possibility of sharing the same number with different devices.
Two years later, embedded SIMs are featured in many consumer devices, especially tablets, smartwatches, and some fitness tracking devices. The new technology, however, has not been widely adopted for industrial IoT use, and smartphone manufacturers are still ignoring eSIMs.
Since Henze is a regular at the Mobile World Congress, I asked him to share his views on the subject and why there are so few examples of eSIMs in the industrial IoT.
Henze said that most carriers are still trying to figure out the benefit of using eSIMs when working with a customer using M2M and IoT devices. “There is still a lot of fear of competition,” he said, and most carriers prefer the physical SIM that they control to something their customers could replace on demand.
That makes sense. Imagine a network of smart pallets or sensors embedded in shipping containers. In order to change the service provider, the logistics operator would need to replace the SIM cards in every unit, something they could only do when the pallets arrived at a service center equipped to do so. With embedded SIMs they could change the provisioning anywhere in the world when the devices connect to a cellular network.
The same view was shared by Gail Peter Wong, Asset Management Product Manager, IoT Solutions, of AT&T, who told me at the show, “Everybody is trying to eat each other’s lunch,” meaning that operators are not willing to make it easier for customers to change carriers on the fly.
Wong was demonstrating AT&T’s IoT management platform at the MWC GSMA’s Innovation City, where the US carrier was showing its control center solution for a large number of connected devices.
Despite the reluctance of many carriers, the GSMA is fully committed to promoting the embedded SIM as the solution for IoT. The organization argues that its Security Accreditation Scheme (SAS) has enabled all GSM operators to assess the physical security of devices and connections, making it the best protection against attacks. The scheme is managed by the SAS group within GSMA, whose role is to define the security standard which must be maintained at sites where eSIMs are manufactured and where subscription management systems are operated.
At the same time, IoT sensors and devices are getting smaller, and eSIMs are perfect to integrate into circuit boards without compromising the form factor.
It will take a while for eSIMs to be the new standard, but they are here to stay. Mobile carriers will need to accept them for large IoT projects, otherwise they will face increasing competition from other forms of connectivity, such as WiFi, 6LoWPAN (IPv6 over Low-Power Wireless Personal Area Networks), and NB-IoT (NarrowBand IoT), standards which offer efficiency and cost savings, plus other wireless options.