As featured in DisruptiveViews
When Apple started talking about including an embedded, programmable SIM into its devices a few years ago there was the inevitable shuddering from the telecom industry. That’s because when Apple announces new technology it has a habit of becoming the norm, despite the misguided dreams of those that think they can control the mighty innovator.
After all, wasn’t Apple the main driver in reducing the size of removable SIM cards down to the ‘nano’ – primarily to make devices smaller, or was it to make them annoyingly difficult to handle and easier to lose?
The SIM has primarily been a security element used in the authentication of the subscriber before granting him/her access to the mobile network. The ingenuity of the SIM lies in the fact that it is a separate tamper resistant module which can be installed or removed from a mobile phone, making it portable and flexible. However, with the advances in wireless and storage technologies it makes sense to replace the current SIM with the so-called soft SIM or e-SIM, which consists of a tamper-resistant module soldered into the device and a software component downloadable over-the-air (OTA).
So, what’s happening with the Apple SIM, soft SIM or e-SIM (embedded SIM) if you prefer the generic name? Apple actually went ahead with its ‘threat’ and introduced its externally programmable SIM into its latest range of GSM-enabled iPads. It was, of course, testing the water and yet a safe move because the devices are data-only and Apple was able to convince three US and one UK network operator that it was not a threat to their subscriber control or revenues. Heaven only know how they managed that. Even so, it’s still a long way from getting universal acceptance.
There’s much more to the e-SIM story than meets the eye. The GSMA, reportedly working with Apple, Samsung and backed by over twenty operators, two leading M2M Alliances and a host of OEMs, has come up with the Embedded SIM Specification that provides a single, de-facto standard mechanism for the remote provisioning and management of e-SIMs, allowing the OTA provisioning of an initial operator subscription, and the subsequent change of subscription from one operator to another.
Security is still the primary concern, even when provisioning OTA and taking into account subscription manager functions and the role of the trusted service manager or TSM (and who that might be). The TSM will provide business services, customer services and quality assurance. It will also manage relationships between service providers and mobile network operators. The TSM will have the ability to manage ‘many-to-many’ relationships across multiple service providers and multiple MNOs.
It is the emergence of M2M applications and IoT devices that is accelerating the need to separate the SIM application from the UICC (Universal Integrated Circuit Card) and allowing over-the-air downloading of the SIM to the UICC. Many of these devices will be incredibly small and require very low power usage and the SIM may not easily be changed via physical access to the device or may be used in an environment that requires a soldered connection, thus there is a need for ‘over the air’ provisioning of the SIM with the same level of security as achieved today with a traditional, removable SIM.
M2M offers a huge market opportunity
The number of mobile connected devices is expected to be in the tens of billions by 2020 (reports vary wildly), resulting in a huge new market opportunity, predominantly in the machine to machine (M2M) and consumer electronics sectors.
Enterprising mobile operators have been quick to position themselves as key players. Orange in France is rolling out a low power wide area (LPWA) network and T-Mobile in the USA claims it can help companies build an e-SIM into an assortment of connected product categories including connected cars and navigation, mobile health and wearables, among others.
Will all parties be happy if Apple or other device makers takes on that TSM role? Will operators or industry bodies like the GSMA raise their hands, or will we see new, independent entities appear? One thing is certain, we are in for some big changes. And change brings uncertainty and with uncertainty comes opportunity – for the brave.