Prediction Comes True as Vodafone Deploys Free eSIM at Glastonbury

CCS Insight has noted eSIM as a hot topic for CCS Insight since the launch of the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max in September 2018. Apple’s decision to include a virtual SIM slot in every following generation of iPhone contributed to more than 1 billion eSIM-capable smartphones in use by 2023, primarily made up of 777 million iPhones, according to CCS Insight’s latest Spotlight report.

In 2021, we wrote about an innovative programme pioneered by US carrier T-Mobile called Test Drive (see our blog post here). This allowed people with an unlocked eSIM-capable iPhone to test the network for a month with a free eSIM. Eligible customers needed to download the Test Drive app that activated the second line, providing 30 days of unlimited calls and texts and 30 GB of data. This meant that customers on rival networks who were sceptical about the quality and reach of T-Mobile’s service could have a free “try before you buy” period, which we viewed as an extremely astute marketing initiative.

Since then, Verizon and AT&T (through its Cricket Wireless brand) have followed suit. T-Mobile’s Test Drive has evolved to a service called Network Pass, which offers a whopping three-month trial with unlimited voice calls, text messages and data and is available to businesses and consumers.

I’ve been surprised that more European and Asian operators haven’t been as innovative with eSIM. For a while, we have predicted that an operator would use a large event — where accessing mobile networks can be difficult — as an ideal place to give away airtime using eSIM technology.

Last year, Vodafone UK took a first step in this direction at Glastonbury Festival by giving away free physical SIM cards to attendees. As noted by my colleague Ben Wood in his LinkedIn post: “CCS Insight has previously predicted that operators will use eSIM (rather than physical SIM) to have QR codes at major events allowing consumers to use the “spare” eSIM slot in iPhones and other devices when in congested areas”. Vodafone was the official connectivity partner of Glastonbury, as it will be this year (see Keeping Festivals Connected).

Vodafone’s free (physical SIM) promotion at Glastonbury Festival 2023

This week at the same event, our prediction has come to fruition, with Vodafone offering a limited number of people the chance to trial its network using an eSIM subscription. Users simply follow a link in the official Glastonbury Festival app to access the free network trial, offering 50 GB of data, 500 minutes of airtime and 500 texts for seven days.

Vodafone network trial using eSIM, promoted in the Glastonbury Festival app

We believe this is the first time such a promotion has been offered at an ad hoc event in the UK, and it could be a world-first. Should the approach be successful, we expect it to become more common at other events and in different countries.

During the promotion, Vodafone must be careful that adding thousands more users to the network at an event with so many people doesn’t degrade the service for its paying customers. The allure of 50 GB of free data could see trial users generating a disproportionate amount of traffic. It’ll be interesting to see how the network performance evolves throughout the event.

Vodafone has also implemented geofencing, which means the free trial will only work at the festival site. This prevents other people from signing up for the promotion and using it to get free airtime for a week with little or no benefit to Vodafone.

Message displayed to users outside Glastonbury Festival trying to access the free trial

Getting the sign-up process as smooth as possible is also an important consideration, and this is a broader challenge the wider industry needs to address, particularly on Android phones. Vodafone expects that customers with phones that don’t support eSIM could be disappointed when they try to sign up for the free trial, so it’s also offering a limited number of physical SIM cards at the event.

This isn’t a small investment for Vodafone. In addition to giving away airtime, it will pay a transaction charge to its eSIM provider for every activated subscription. On this basis, the follow-up to the event will be an important factor in justifying the investment: the network will hope that its promotion will result in subscribers migrating from rival networks. Vodafone has already said it will run a similar promotion at other UK events this summer including Wimbledon, Boardmasters Festival and Kendal Calling.

There’s no doubt eSIM provides new ways for operators to connect with their users and the ability to deliver innovative experiences. We expect to see many exciting developments in the coming years.

For more information, see CCS Insight’s recently published Spotlight report on eSIM.