eSIM cards are here to boost the IoT

Cascajo Sastre María    14 April, 2016

SIM cards are much more than what they appear to be. Within an apparently simple rectangular metal chip encased in a plastic carrier is a miniature computer! SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module. It is basically an integrated chip that has memory space, a microprocessor, an OS, a runtime environment, communication protocols, input/output capabilities, etc.

A SIM interacts with the mobile network in order to ensure two features that both customers and operators require:

  • Identity Management – authenticates the subscription – this is, the customer – in order to grant the device access to the communication network
  • Security – stores secret keys and information to secure communication and provides tamper proof protection so the information inside the SIM cannot be accessed without the proper credentials

SIM cards have evolved over time. In the hardware front there has been a continuous effort to increase capabilities, reduce the form factor and move towards more versatile formats. From the initial credit card size, the form factor has shrunk over years to Mini, Micro and Nano SIM card sizes. Soldered and removable SIMs allow special use cases. The software has also evolved to provide services such as payment applets or mobile connectivity.

eSIM, the evolution of the SIM paradigm

The industry has addressed the shortcomings of traditional SIM cards. The result is the eSIM paradigm, the evolution of SIM cards. These are some of the main reasons for the change:

  • sometimes SIM cards cannot be easily inserted
  • the devices might not be accessible
  • the conditions of temperature, humidity, vibration, etc. might affect operability
  • country issues – the destination or route of the device might be unknown
  • operator issues – the operator might need to be changed during the lifecycle of the device

IoT devices needed a new paradigm for all these stated reasons. New SIM cards in the future will not have a card format at all. They will be embedded in devices and known as eSIM cards. Their use will surpass the current scope of mobile and IoT devices. From the moment they are definitely deployed, they will become available for endless (many estimate that close to a billion) devices.

The UICC (Universal Integrated Circuit Card) will be included at factory/production time. The subscription to a mobile network is downloaded remotely and not embedded. The industry has working together in order to develop a fully GSMA compliant standard. Following these specifications ensures that users must have the freedom to choose any device, and that it will be fully operational regardless of the eSIM provider, device manufacturer or mobile operator.  Operators must also be able to select and deploy any remote server to manage any eSIM independently of the supplier. The key aspect is that the entire ecosystem complies with GSMA specifications.

Proof of concept of the eSIM paradigm was showcased at the 2016 Mobile World Congress. Telefónica is one of the key partners that are currently developing eSIM. Other key industry partners are Sony, LG, Samsung, Alcatel, Verizon, Huawei, Qualcomm, and China Unicom, among others.

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