I remember when the first iPhone came out back in 2007, and like many other tech enthusiasts, I spent three hours queuing outside the nearest Apple store to get my hands on one. I also remember slotting in my new SIM card – and then waiting with baited breath for 24 hours (it felt like longer to me!), for the SIM to activate. Then I could finally get rid of my old, battered, a bit slow, clamshell phone with its cracked cover, and start using the gleaming, brand new iPhone with all its latest and greatest features.
The use of SIM cards goes back to early 1990s. Yet, while they are still prevalent, the conventional physical SIM, as we know, is living on borrowed time. In a world that is increasingly digital and virtual, the use of embedded SIMs (eSIM) and Soft SIMs are starting to gather pace. Simply put, a device with an eSIM comes with a SIM chip built-in, straight out of the box. A device with a Soft SIM doesn’t have any SIM hardware at all – the SIM functionality is delivered onto the device virtually, or over the air (OTA), once the user switches it on.
Both these technologies make the process of starting to use a new device such as a smartphone simpler and quicker. And, they help break down traditional (and costly) geographical barriers when it comes to mobile connectivity between different countries. What’s also exciting is that they open up a new world of possibilities when it comes to form factors: to-date, having to squeeze in a SIM or even a micro SIM has limited manufacturers’ options when it comes to items that can be equipped with connectivity. That’s no longer an issue, spurring innovation by bringing connectivity to previously un-connected ‘things’.
The end or start of an era?
Both eSIMs and Soft SIMs allow subscribers to switch operators instantly, without the hassle of SIM swapping. While great news for users, this is stirring debate about whether these solutions mark the beginning of the end for mobile network operators (MNOs) – because without the conventional link to the subscriber it will be impossible to retain stable revenue streams. After all,over-the-top (OTT) services using VoIP and IM have already made inroads into MNOs’ turf. eSIMs and Soft SIMs are seen as yet another way to drive a wedge between MNOs and their customers.
Yet, I don’t think it’s as simple or gloomy as that. One interesting outcome once eSIMs and Soft SIMs become mainstream could be that mobile subscribers would be able to access mobile networks in a similar way as public Wi-Fi, choosing connectivity from a menu showing different tariffs and signal strengths. This would open up competition in the market in a whole new, much more dynamic, way.
Truly borderless mobility
Imagine you are on a round-the-world trip of a lifetime – starting from the US East Coast, stopping in the UK, then venturing down to South Africa, moving on to discover the Asia Pacific region, and then flying back to Europe before returning home to the US. Currently, most of us would buy local SIM cards when travelling – they are cost effective and offer good network connectivity. The issue is that a device may be locked for a specific MNO’s SIM – and it’s a pain having to buy a new SIM the moment you step off the plane in a new country.
Now, global Wi-Fi hotspot devices can make all this a lot less painful. They allow people to stay connected while roaming, without the hassle of changing SIM cards or fearing bill shock due to high roaming charges. And, when a Wi-Fi hotspot device is equipped with our Tata Communications – MOVE IoT Connect™, travellers are able to tap into truly borderless connectivity the moment they take their Wi-Fi hotspot device out of the box. Our relationships with 600 MNOs globally enable this, ensuring consistent connectivity and a high-quality user experience for travellers worldwide.
In the second part of this blog post, I will look at the role of eSIMs and Soft SIMs in the Internet of Things, and enabling everything to become instantly and seamlessly connected.
Read more about re-imagining mobile networks to unleash the true power of IoT.