Is the e-SIM Battle about to Begin?

The Incredible Shrinking SIM Card Is Becoming Embedded

The classic subscriber identity modules, also known as SIM cards, started out the size of normal credit cards but have been re-engineered and re-standardised several times during the past few decades to be smaller than a thumbnail. The current nano-SIM is tiny enough to become lost in pocket lint but packs all the punch of previous iterations.

The next generation of SIMs will be embedded into devices and can be provisioned remotely, over the air, allowing for a change in operators. Embedded SIMs were initially designed for machine-to-machine implementations. But now, they are growing beyond the original intentions and could begin showing up in flagship smartphones this year.

Last month when Apple launched the 9.7-inch version of the iPad Pro, it also introduced the truly embedded, reprogrammable SIM. This was a bigger industry development than first appeared. Previous Apple tablets shipped with installed SIMs, but they were removable, not embedded. Apple’s e-SIM is, for the most part, reprogrammable. A subscriber can, for example, choose a mobile operator when traveling abroad, signing up for a temporary account. The concept of swapping SIMs could soon become outdated.

Apple is using its proprietary version of the e-SIM as the GSMA finalises a version of an e-SIM specification for smart devices. Once the e-SIM for smartphones is standardised, device manufacturers can choose to implement an open version of an embedded SIM.

The new environment has similarities to the old CDMA world, where phones had no SIM card and the mobile operator’s identification was hard encoded deep into the device. But it’s different this time. For one thing, we expect most manufacturers to initially offer a standard removable SIM-slot on devices with an embedded SIM, as Apple has done on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. But ultimately, for subscribers, the flexibility should be similar to choosing a Wi-Fi access point. Operators have been getting used to this during the past few years, as customers have become savvier and embraced SIM-swapping.

We expect relationships to change during the coming years as people become accustomed to an easier switch of operator, but network coverage will continue to be a key differentiator. In the past, changes in SIM sizes haven’t been industry-shaking but this time has the potential to at least partially disrupt the landscape for mobile service providers.