Recent reports suggest that the humble SIM card’s days are numbered, with an e-SIM alternative set to provide a significantly neater solution. But what exactly is an e-SIM and when can we expect to see one pop up in an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy?
From the day you opened up the box of your first feature phone (it was a Nokia, right?), you’ve been reliant on a little oblong piece of plastic called a SIM card to make calls and send texts.
This SIM solution is a clumsy physical way to get your generically built phone connected to a specific network in a particular country. But really, there’s no good reason for them to exist, and they won’t do for much long.
WHAT IS AN E-SIM?
An e-SIM is an electronic SIM card. As the name suggests, it will replace the physical, plastic SIM card all current smartphones run on with a virtual embedded equivalent that cannot be removed.
EASY OPERATOR SWITCHING AND MORE FLEXIBLE ROAMING
An e-SIM is non-removable, simply because it doesn’t need to be removed. With such an embedded standard, the idea is that you can switch to a new operator without having to insert a specific SIM card. It’s all done through software.
The network data that a standard SIM card carries will be rewritable on future e-SIM devices, so all you’ll need to do to change operator is make a phone call or two – rather like when you arrange to bring your phone number across to a new network now (though hopefully even easier).
Another advantage will be when travelling. It will be much easier to switch to a local network if you’re going to be spending any great amount of time abroad – particularly useful when travelling outside the EU, where roaming charges can be extortionate.
NO DODGY ADAPTERS
The other problem with physical SIM cards is that there are currently two or three sizes in play.
Have you ever tried swapping your iPhone for an Android phone, or vice versa? Very often, they use different types of SIM entirely. This necessitates the use of an ugly and flimsy plastic adaptor, or else an entirely new SIM, neither of which is ideal.
Let’s not even mention the agony of requiring a hairpin-like SIM tool to access the wretched things, or the sharp edged alternatives you have to come up with when you invariably mislay them.
YOU’LL NEED A NEW PHONE
As this new e-SIM will be an embedded standard, it means that no smartphone in existence today will benefit from it. Nor, we suspect, will any phone released within six months or even a year from now.
The aforementioned FT report reckons that the first e-SIM device could be a year away, which has led many to conclude that the iPhone 7 could be the first SIMless phone to hit the market in September 2016.
IT’LL MEAN SMALLER PHONES
Whatever the first e-SIM phone is, the chances are it’ll be slimmer for not having a physical SIM card inside it.
Given that physical SIM cards are very simple in function, they’re primarily made up of useless plastic – the actually SIM part is that thin strip of golden material you see on one side of it. This means that doing away with SIM cards will free up a fair amount of extra space.
It’s not just the space occupied by the SIM itself, but the housing, reader, and tray mechanisms that support it. With space at an absolute premium in modern smartphones, and every millimetre counting, the e-SIM will help bring about even slimmer phones.
Are you excited by the prospect of e-SIM cards? Let us know in the comments section below.
GSMA E-SIM SPECIFICATIONS
The GSMA at MWC this February released a specification that allows consumers to remotely activate the SIM embedded in a device such as a smart watch, fitness band or tablet. This new specification, which is the first output from the GSMA’s industry-backed Consumer Remote SIM Provisioning initiative, will enable consumers to add a new generation of devices to a mobile subscription and connect them securely to a mobile network.
“This is the only interoperable and global specification that has the backing of the mobile industry and lets consumers with a mobile subscription remotely connect their devices to a mobile network,”
said Alex Sinclair, Chief Technology Officer, GSMA.
“This new specification gives consumers the freedom to remotely connect devices, such as wearables, to a mobile network of their choice and continues to evolve the process of connecting new and innovative devices.”
Mobile network operators, mobile device manufacturers and SIM vendors have worked closely together through the GSMA initiative to deliver a specification that will allow consumers to easily activate the SIM embedded in a range of devices with a subscription from a mobile network operator of their choice. The initiative does not aim to replace all SIM cards in the field, but is instead designed to help users connect multiple devices through the same subscription and will help mobile device manufacturers to develop a new range of smaller, lighter mobile-connected devices that are better suited for wearable technology applications.
APPLE ALREADY OFFERS SOMETHING SIMILAR
Apple has already offered us a glimpse at what an e-SIM might entail.
Last year’s crop of new 4G-enabled iPads, led by the iPad Air 2 but including the iPad Mini 3, incorporated something called Apple SIM. This is an entirely software-based SIM, which offered the freedom to swap operators at will.
Or rather, it did so in participating countries. The whole problem with the e-SIM concept isn’t the technology, which has been viable for some time, but the cooperation of all the various parties – and that includes networks as well as manufacturers. That’s where the GSMA’s soon-to-be-universally-accepted e-SIM standard comes in.
It gets just the briefest of mentions on Apple’s website, but a small Palo Alto startup represents the secret source that allows the most recent iPad models to roam seamlessly in more than 90 countries.
GigSky, which also offers its services to iOS and Android devices via an app, has roaming deals that allow customers to use their iPads all over the world without needing to rely on Wi-Fi or to purchase service in each country they visit.
While cheaper than what you would pay AT&T or Verizon for traveling abroad, GigSky’s prices are still higher than popping in a local SIM card. In Japan, for example, 500 megabytes of data costs $50, while in England you can get five gigabytes of data for that price.
In addition to powering global travel options on the iPad, GigSky sells its own SIM card for use in other devices.
“No matter what we do, it’s actually going to cost more than local,”
CEO Ravi Rishy-Maharaj told Re/code. GigSky has to strike deals, handle billing and customer support, and run its own data centers.
That said, rival FreedomPop is offering a portable hotspot that works in a bunch of countries for rates generally lower than those offered by GigSky.
Rishy-Maharaj won’t say just how many customers his 65-person company has, but he acknowledges that far more people are traveling overseas with their iPad than are actually signing up for any sort of international service.
While GigSky estimates there are 28 million cellular-equipped iPads out there capable of accessing its service, only a fraction have yet done so (iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, iPad mini 3 and 4 are supported). The company estimates that about 700,000 of those iPads are traveling internationally in any given month, but only about 100,000 are actually on some sort of roaming data plan.
“Hopefully, embedded Apple SIM will change all of this, especially since international Wi-Fi calling is now enabled on the iPad,” Rishy-Maharaj said.
In addition to the new calling feature, Apple has made Apple SIM a more permanent presence on the iPad, embedding it into the tablet rather than making it merely one option to go into the removable slot.
Apple is GigSky’s most high-profile partner, but Rishy-Maharaj says more deals are in the works.
While there are plenty of other “travel SIM” companies, GigSky was among the earliest to recognize that data, not voice service, would become the most precious resource when traveling abroad.
Update: It’s worth noting that GigSky isn’t the only company offering global roaming on the Apple SIM. Another company, AlwaysOnline, also offers service in a smaller number of countries (around 50), but has options ranging for as little as one hour or one day of service.
Source: Re/code, GSMA, Trusted Reviews, Tech Support