Nov 20, 2019
Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.
As a developer and a consumer, we have all faced the limitations of Subscriber Identification Modules or "SIM” cards, those tiny little chips that fit on your finger tip to provide your mobile device with its own unique phone number as well as the provisioning and billing capabilities that go with it. Who hasn’t spent time digging around for the right tool (or paperclip!) to open the tiny slot and then struggle to replace an old SIM with a new one? Other than a decrease in the size of their form factor (see image), and the introduction of number portability a few years ago, the underlying technology behind SIM cards, as well as the processes for managing services, hasn’t changed much in 25 years.
Currently, a cellular device that connects to a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) requires a unique SIM card which is issued and controlled by the MNO to track and bill for individual usage. To change the MNO, you must change the SIM. This is not only inconvenient, it is fraught with challenges such as the potential for damage, loss, or theft. It’s also time consuming for both the device owner and for the MNO to support. This is clearly not scalable, and in many cases not practical.
Now imagine that you’re responsible for thousands of IoT devices needing SIM changes, and it’s easy to see why it’s time for a new, more scalable solution. Today’s embedded SIM (eSIM) technology may just be that solution, so let’s take a look at what the future of connectivity might look like with this technology.
What is an eSIM?
An eSIM is a SIM that is embedded directly into a device, and can be programmed by developers and remotely provisioned. The eSIM specification is published by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) , and two architectures have been approved in the current release:
- The consumer architecture (e.g., mobile phones and smartwatches) follows a client-driven (pull) model that supports control over remote provisioning and local management of operator profiles by the end user of the device. This puts control of permissions in the hands of the end user and makes for simpler set up, with no physical SIM card, and easier profile switching.
- The machine-to-machine (M2M) architecture (e.g., autonomous cars) supports a server-driven (push) model to provision and remotely manage operator profiles. The M2M standard supports operations without any human control of connectivity, allowing backend infrastructure development of automated services.
Why is this significant to IoT?
Designed specifically with the growth of IoT in mind, a goal of the eSIM specification is to provide interoperability and allow greater accessibility.
Remote provisioning means that the much smaller devices typically found in IoT can be supported, and manufacturers can build a new range of products for global deployments. On top of this, eSIMs offer an array of significant benefits including space savings, robust tamper-proof security, simpler device set up, and simpler international roaming. More generally, both architectures defined in the eSIM specification have aspects that IoT is sure to benefit from.
For a deeper dive on the eSIM specification, check out this Whitepaper.
The universal approach behind the eSIM architecture allows manufacturers to build a new range of products for global deployment that can provide:
- Re-Programmability – Allows for over-the-air (OTA) switching between network operators and the ability to manage multiple profiles from different operators on the same device.
- Power Efficiencies – Allows devices to be smaller and operate on less power while still containing secure cellular communications capabilities.
- Interoperability - Once the platforms, services, or products have met the requirements of accreditation and compliance programs, certificates are issued allowing them to function with other accredited actors in the GSMA-controlled ecosystem.
- Compact Form Factor - eSIMs are about half the size of Nano SIMs and don’t require a socket, so they easily fit in very small devices.
- Cost Reduction - eSIMs reduce the total cost of ownership of the device because they optimize and eliminate supply chain and management costs.
- Higher Security - An eSIM soldered within a closed device is hard to locate, remove, and reuse. Plus, the GSMA has introduced a comprehensive Security Accreditation Scheme (SAS).
There is also an important, reciprocal, connection between eSIM and 5G that may help both technologies to expand their adoption and growth opportunities. Many global use cases and applications for 5G require seamless network access across different geographical locations. The remote provisioning, and seamless connectivity management that eSIMs offer, helps reduce the need to physically swap SIMs across networks. This provides the ubiquitous connectivity that 5G requires, regardless of the location.
Industries are already adopting eSIM technology
Three challenges in IoT that eSIMs work to address are: durability, scalability, and flexibility. Most IoT devices need to be ruggedized as they are only as durable as their weakest components. eSIMs can simplify the mechanical design considerations for IoT devices such as vibration, temp, and dust etc., adding to cost reduction. eSIMs can also save the cost of changing SIMs in masses of devices as they cross networks. Here device profiles can be updated quickly and securely OTA. Moreover, as these devices now move globally, connectivity changes can even be automated to enable compliance with country specific regulations, or to select a network based on set criteria such as signal strength or tariff rate.
A few examples where eSIM technology can make a significant impact are:
- Agriculture - In agriculture, IoT sensors are widespread and employed in extremely tough conditions. eSIMs allow for remote provisioning which means the casing can be sealed.
- Automotive - Manufacturers ship vehicles globally and ownership changes over time. eSIMs allow for remote provisioning at the final destination, and quick OTA downloads simplify transfer of ownership.
- Global Shipping - Sensors that track and monitor container conditions can be smaller with eSIMs, allowing for longer battery life and uninterrupted service across boundaries.
Could iSIMs be the next step?
Integrated SIM (iSIM) technology builds on eSIM functionality. While an eSIM is a dedicated chip soldered on to a board and attached to a device’s processor, iSIM integrates the processor core and encryption in a system-on-chip (SoC). This is important for use cases which look for low cost, low power, and high levels of security in a tiny form factor (e.g., asset tracking).
Even though iSIM technology is in the early days, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. is supporting the transformation of this industry with our Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 which recently became the first mobile SoC to receive Common Criteria EAL-4+ security certification, the gold standard for smart card hardware security assurance and testing. Capabilities such as offline payment, trusted platform module (TPM) functions, transit, electronic ID, and crypto wallets will be possible, all without the need of a discrete security chip.
eSIMs offer significant benefits for an array of devices like smartphones, wearables, laptops, tablets, and connected home devices.
On the consumer side, a number of manufacturers have released mobile devices that includes eSIMs. In addition, API’s like this one for Android allow third parties to develop their own carrier apps and Local Profile Assistants (LPAs – software that allows consumers to choose and change their subscription data when switching between MNOs) on eSIM-enabled Android devices.
All of this clearly shows some hefty support on the consumer side, however, the explosive growth of IoT may be the real key driver behind the adoption of eSIM. By 2025, it is predicted that there may be over 75 billion connected devices in circulation worldwide. Provisioning, authenticating, and managing and securing IoT mass deployments requires a new technology. eSIMs and iSIMs may just be the transformational solution that IoT is looking for.