eSIMs change mobile operators’ hold on IoT device connection

Author: George Malin, IoT Now

Embedded SIMs or eSIMs are increasingly being recognised as a more flexible, easier to manage option than traditional plastic SIM cards for global IoT deployments. However, some confusion exists about what an eSIM is.

Subscriber identification modules (SIMs) have existed since the dawn of the consumer mobile market and perform a vital role in identifying users. However, for IoT deployments the things that made them great for mobile phones, make them insecure, costly and inflexible.

Plastic SIMs require a slot to be incorporated into a device and there is potential for the SIM to be removed, damaged during install or fitted incorrectly. Also, the SIM once deployed isn’t designed to be updated over the air. You’re stuck with what you selected when the device was deployed and configured unless you’re prepared to bear the cost of replacement.

This is a big deal for low-margin, high-volume IoT applications and, when compared to the cost of embedding an eSIM onto a circuit board in the factory that can be configured remotely to select the best available network once deployed regardless of location, renders the traditional SIM obsolete for many applications.

However, alongside eSIMs come global SIMs and embedded universal integrated circuit cards (eUICCs). Global SIMs are simple to understand. Large operator groups provide SIM cards that claim to offer network access anywhere in the world. These groups often have large network footprints and partner in countries where they do not own their own networks to offer connectivity everywhere. However, customers have no control and they may find that in a specific region they don’t get the best coverage available. They’re also locked-in to that provider.

eUICCs are often conflated with eSIMs and substantial confusion exists as Paul Marshall, a co-founder of Eseye, attests. “The wording eSIM seems to mean many things and leaves an impression that eSIM and eUICC are probably linked but not linked at the same time. Embedded SIMs and eUICC are two distinct things.” The eSIM is the hardware component of the remote SIM provisioning for multiple network profiles. This allows users to choose which network profile to download and connect to without the need to obtain or swap out physical SIMs. eUICC is not exclusive to embedded SIMs and can also be used on current removable SIMs, which may be an attractive option for existing devices without eSIM functionality. This is most likely where the confusion has arisen.

With that addressed, let’s move on to the question of why eSIMs are being adopted. Marshall identifies three main reasons: manufacturing, reliability and security. “When you’re making a circuit board you know how to load a reel of components so being able to load a reel of a thousand eSIMs and put each on a chip as one of the components is far more simple than having to put a connector down and pay someone to slot a SIM in,” he explains. “Next, eSIMs offer greater reliability. If you’re soldering a component down you get the reliability you expect but if you’re putting a plastic SIM in a socket, there’s a risk of poor contact or damage.

Finally, eSIM from a security point of view is less vulnerable because an eSIM is not accessible from outside the device.” Jean-Marc Lazzari, the chief executive of Qvantel, points to sound operational reasons for eSIMs to be adopted. “eSIMs also allow businesses to onboard their customers in one single flow, direct on their app, from purchase to activation, through a simple process of – select plan, pay, download eSIM, start using,” he says. “This process is completely automated and avoids the costs and logistics associated with traditional SIM distribution.”

James Wright, the founder and chief executive of telecoms company, Vivio, continues the operational theme. “The use of eSIM technology removes one of the last remaining physical restrictions that we all have getting mobile service hooked up to mobile hardware,” he says. “In particular for IoT deployments, it is not practical to replace traditional SIM cards in large volumes of devices that are likely to be geographically widespread, and potentially require a trained engineer to access. Not only can an eSIM be switched from one provider to another without physically accessing the device, multiple provider tariffs can be connected to a single eSIM at the same time providing the end-user with the flexibility and choice.”

eSIMs have the potential to put enterprises back in control of their connectivity by enabling devices that automatically select the most appropriate connectivity once deployed. The advantages of a global manufacturer are significant when compared to the constraints involved with global SIMs. “Avoiding [global SIMs] means companies would no longer have to bind to multi-year agreements that have no flexibility and end up being very costly over a short period,” says Lazzari. “It is possible to change deals and plans over-the-air, and companies can even adopt an algorithm that is always searching for the most cost-effective solutions and automatically performing a plan change or carrier change on the go. This means the scalability of the business becomes much more streamlined.”

Marshall agrees and warns that often regulatory situations make global SIMs unviable. “A network operator could set up a single international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) to roam anywhere in the world but this not necessarily the company managing all the networks involved and practices are not universal and can change,” he says. “On top of this there are regulations and legislation regarding roaming to be taken into account and these can change too. For example, permanent roaming regulation means that in some countries it is not possible for devices to roam.”

This point is amplified by Tonia Baldwin at UK-based business mobiles specialist A1 Comms, who points out: “Due to roaming clauses and network guidelines, you cannot just use one global SIM if users are not based in the UK, for example, for a certain number of days per year. This is why eSIMs can be a great solution for businesses.”

This is disruptive to the way in which mobile connectivity has previously been sold but the needs of IoT devices necessitate a changed approach. “A global SIM may suit some circumstances from a technical point of view, but you still sign up to a single tariff with a single provider,” says Wright.

“Changing provider for a better deal, or better service, still means you will need to change SIM cards and most people just will not bother to go through the upheaval. Due to the nature of the technology, global SIM card tariffs are naturally more expensive than their single network equivalents. The ability to use multiple providers side-by-side can help bring overall pricing down for the end-users whilst still maintaining margins for the industry.”

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