Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Embedded SIM cards could enable a new generation of cellular-connected hardware, and alter the general chemistry of the relationship between operators and subscribers. At least in theory, reprogrammable embedded SIM cards would enable wireless customers to shift between rival service providers, although contracts and equipment instalment plans could complicate this.
At present, there are few real e-SIM devices beyond machine-to-machine implementations, some variants of Apple's iPad Pro and a few smartwatches. Smartphone makers, waiting for the completed standard from the GSMA, will certainly introduce e-SIM devices in upcoming iterations, but for now it seems that Windows notebooks or two-in-ones could be the opening act for the technology.
Earlier this month, SIM card provider Oberthur Technologies revealed a standardised e-SIM solution for Windows 10 machines. Gemalto, the leading provider of SIM cards, has also teamed up with Microsoft to bring embedded SIM technology to Windows 10. In 2016, Microsoft announced that its platform would provide native support for the e-SIM specification. The move would open the possibility for Microsoft and its partners to sell airtime through their own channel. One scenario here would be for intercontinental business travellers to stay connected across countries without concern for roaming costs. Apple has had some success in this space through its efforts with Apple SIM and the embedded solution offered in some iPads. However, for users, the process still involves switching from provider to provider to get the best local deal.
Standardisation of embedded SIMs is going through a series of phases within the GSMA. The specification has recently completed the second phase and the third is expected later in 2017, meaning that more consumer electronics will be built with an embedded SIM, which, over time, will support remote provisioning.
It appears that beyond machine-to-machine and IoT implementations, smartphones are the core part of the e-SIM development. This is causing a certain level of anxiety among wireless operators concerned about customers switching providers. Although this isn't guaranteed, e-SIMs increase the risk of a spike in subscriber churn. Operators will have to create strategies to maintain customer loyalty. In Europe, the ever-looming abolition of roaming charges will certainly go some way to mitigating some of the risk. However, for some players this is an alarming scenario that will potentially give customers greater freedom to move between networks and endanger the traditional direct relationship they have had.
One thing seems certain: e-SIM smartphones will eventually become the norm as hardware makers adapt the latest specifications and begin to test designs with operators worldwide. The enabling components are now coming to market, albeit with devices other than phones leading the charge. As this technology evolves it seems e-SIM has the potential to make a big difference to market dynamics.