eSIM and Soft SIM signify a new era for the mobile ecosystem

Tim Sherwood, VP for business development, mobility & IoT solutions, Tata communications explains how eSIMs and Soft SIMs can bring connectivity to previously un-connected ‘things’.

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eSIM and Soft SIM signify a new era for the mobile ecosystem Both eSIMs and Soft SIMs allow subscribers to switch operators instantly, without the hassle of SIM swapping, Sherwood said.
By  Tim Sherwood Published  April 24, 2018

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.

Everything instantly and seamlessly connected 

Soon, billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices will be connected worldwide – and just like when people travel from country to country - eSIMs and Soft SIMs will play a central role in how quickly and seamlessly all those things connect too.

The challenge for IoT device manufacturers is that the standard method of soldering or inserting IoT SIMs by hand into devices is time consuming and expensive. eSIMs enable device manufacturers to not only embed connectivity into anything without a physical chip, but to also re-programme SIMs over the air (OTA) for millions of devices simultaneously.

Imagine a global steel plant, where all workers wear an IoT-enabled activity tracker type bracelet to monitor key variables such as air quality and heart rate to help ensure their health and safety in tough conditions. Being able to re-programme eSIMs inside all the wearable devices OTA simplifies their management, and helps to make global IoT deployment more practical and affordable.

Another example is a logistics business with hundreds of vehicles in its fleet, with each vehicle equipped with IoT-enabled sensors collecting huge amounts of telemetry data every day. The challenge for the company is how to harness the full power of all this data for maximum insights and efficiencies, without breaking the bank due to roaming charges as its vehicles cross from one country to the next. eSIMs and Soft SIMs can help slash roaming costs in this scenario by automatically switching mobile networks, or re-programming the SIM OTA with a new profile to ensure best rates and coverage. It doesn’t stop there though – an eSIM-enabled managed service can also include other value add services for logistics such as localisation, scheduling, asset management, temperature sensing, video monitoring and vehicle diagnostics – all integrated with the core supply chain management systems of the business. 

One company reaping the rewards of eSIMs and re-programming OTA is Links Field Networks, an IoT connectivity provider for a range of different industries. We’re working with the company to enable it to quickly and easily download its eSIM profile OTA onto thousands of its customers’ devices. With Tata Communications MOVE embedded at the chipset level, Links Field IoT devices don’t need a physical SIM – any device can simply be switched on in any country, and it will be instantly connected, with the local MNO profile loaded onto it OTA. Tata Communications MOVE™ also gives Links Field and its customers complete visibility over data usage patterns and tariffs through an API-rich, fully automated environment.

Adapt and thrive

As eSIMs and Soft SIMs start to become mainstream, we may well see a shift in the competitive landscape for not just MNOs but for the whole mobile ecosystem. New device form factors and IoT applications will emerge, and businesses will be able to unleash the full potential of truly global mobile and IoT services.

So, rather than the end of an era, these new SIM technologies should be considered as a new beginning – one that gives all businesses in the mobile world the chance to renew and reinvigorate what they bring to the sector today and tomorrow. This evolution will favour those who are ready, willing and able to adapt and become more agile in response to new competitive pressures and opportunities.

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