Are carrier-free SIM cards on the way?

by: Simon HillMarch 21, 2014

sim card vodafone

Jonathan Ah Kit

Does the fact that current SIM cards are tied to specific carriers actually benefit anyone other than the carriers? What if device manufacturers like Samsung and Apple could sell you smartphones with SIM cards already in them? Your network connection could change on the fly, or you’d have the option to change it within your account online. OEMs could negotiate better deals for service and pass the savings along to customers. Hybrids combining Wi-Fi and different public and private networks could provide seamless service wherever you went.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So, what are the chances of it happening?

Is it just a pipe dream?

The news that the Netherlands has eased the rules regarding carrier agnostic SIM cards was picked up by GigaOM and generated a bit of excitement. If OEMs took over as carriers then, in theory, roaming could be eradicated and we could switch to the best service wherever we happened to be. This idea is the “soft SIM” and it’s the kind of thing that gives carriers nightmares. Unfortunately, it’s a fair distance off what the Netherlands legislation is actually talking about.

“This is meant primarily for large scale M2M deployments, think smart metering, vehicles, Kindles, machinery etc. In these cases it is prohibitively expensive to switch SIM-cards even if you could,” explained Rudolf van der Berg, “…it is certainly not for normal consumers and it is not about soft-SIMS. It is about hard coded SIMs that are under control of the M2M deployer.”

A variety of devices now use SIMs for always-on communication

A variety of devices now use SIMs for always-on communication.

Yankee Group 

Rudolf van der Berg is a policy analyst currently working for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He has been pushing for this change for years and wrote some of the substantiating research.

So what does the Netherlands legislation mean?

The Netherlands has liberalized the IMSI numbers for carrier agnostic SIM-cards. IMSI or International Mobile Subscriber Identity numbers are unique IDs. They consist of an MCC (mobile country code) followed by an MNC (mobile network code), followed by an MSIN (mobile subscription identification number).

“The Netherlands has so far taken a partial step, by allowing the shared use of 2 MNCs,” says van der Berg.

One of the ways this idea was sold was to highlight the cost involved in switching SIM cards when they are fixed in devices, sometimes even soldered onto a board. As we start to put SIM cards in more devices, from cars to cameras, this issue grows more important.

Give us an example

“Now I do see a role for OEMs but not in the area of mobile phones, but much more in innovations for tablets, laptops, digital cameras and other gear. That equipment often stays at home for long periods, making it uneconomical to buy a monthly data subscription, but when you are on the road or abroad, having access to data would be really really nice. Having to go hunting for a SIM is a chore. Roaming is expensive…” van der Berg suggests, “In such a case a tablet with 3G and embedded SIM registered ASUS, Samsung or something could be really handy. They could provide a function where you buy access on a network or all three networks for X per day, through a simple menu. In addition they could make agreements with providers of Wifi for EAP-SIM authentication even if the tablet only supports Wifi and no 3G/4G.”

sim card

Imagine never having to swap SIM cards again

MIKI Yoshihito

He certainly has a point, and it’s an issue that OEMs really need to tackle. We’ve already seen a move in the US carrier space as T-Mobile offers 200MB monthly free data for tablets if you get a SIM from them. Amazon offered 3G access for Kindle owners for free, but it soon applied a 50MB per month limit. You can still download as many books as you want, but you won’t get more than 50MB a month through the browser. If you want 4G LTE for your Kindle tablet then you have to sign up for a plan from AT&T or Verizon.

People don’t want to have multiple data plans with different carriers, so the ability to switch your service for the SIM in your car or your tablet without having to rip the SIM out is going to be vital.

Indoor call quality

There’s another side to this and it relates to indoor call quality. We’ve all felt the pain of a pathetic signal when we enter a building, sometimes rendering your phone unusable. It’s a serious problem and it can even be a safety concern. Netherlands is a special case here.

“For one or two years anyone can set up a low power GSM network in the DECT Guardband, without any license. Over 3000 organisations have done this so far. For example many hospitals did…” van der Berg explains, “Until now they had no official MNC to broadcast with. This has now been fixed. The benefits lie in improved indoor coverage compared to traditional DECT and to be independent of the mobile network, for example in case of disaster or for the Dutch equivalent of the O2 Arena and Wembley, to make sure that when the stadium is full all the staff can still use their phones on the DECT Guardband and their own PBX (private branch exchange).”

cell tower antenna

Weak signal is still a problem, despite the ubiquity of cellular antennas


In most of the rest of the world we are relying on signal boosters or carrier-supplied devices that effectively draw a stronger signal through your Wi-Fi router or employ Wi-Fi calling to combat poor signals indoors. If businesses and public organizations were allowed to operate their own internal networks, then you can bet a lot of them would.

Where’s the competition?

These moves in the Netherlands are certainly a positive step, but there’s a long way to go. The OECD report on Machine-to-Machine Communications puts it well: “Further liberalisation, in wireless markets, could enable M2M-users to buy wholesale access to mobile networks, to change mobile networks without switching SIM-cards and to directly negotiate national and international roaming…” going on to suggest that, “Such changes could lead to a more dynamic market for mobile wholesale access, mobile roaming and a strengthening of competition between mobile network operators.”

That’s the key right there, how about some genuine competition driving carriers to do a better job? Why can’t we have automatic national roaming, so you get the strongest signal possible wherever you happen to be? Why should the mobile network operators own our SIM cards when it enables them to limit our service, lock us in, and drain every last drop of profit out of us? If the mobile network had efficiency and customer satisfaction as its primary goal it would look completely different than it does right now. You may say I’m a dreamer…

  • Dragonscourgex

    Good read.

  • cheekbones

    Why is passing control to the likes of Apple a good idea? They are already trying to weasel their way into the packet core network space with their usual ‘don’t touch the apple black box stealing all your usage data sitting in your server rooms’ approach
    ….and you expect the same locally based network investment in all countries if it’s owned by a global company, no I don’t think so…. making the carriers share via legislation or mutual benefit (which is happening already: Three and EE – Voda and O2) is a better approach. Achieving the same goal of making a very competitive market even more so by making them differentiated by customer focus and service rather than coverage. This would also allow MVNOs some room for themselves in the market too.

    Handing control of this to Google, Apple and Samsung just makes me feel queasy quite frankly.
    Personally I think the coverage issue is largely a thing of the past anyway.

    • Grant

      I live approx 15miles from centre of London and coverage issues are still a major problem here as is many places..

  • cheekbones

    oh and his point about roaming is bobbins – again mutually beneficial wholesale usage purchases between country providers removes this issue (Lebara – Three:Feel at Home) – the providers would then work out the profit and loss based on the events the customer consumes when they roam. Much like interconnect fees work now.

  • peika

    How operator got profit this way ? In my country different operator have different internet access fees, most are pre-paid.

  • smokebomb

    “OEMs could negotiate better deals for service and pass the savings along to customers.”

    Haha haha haha haha…stop ha you’re hahahaha you’re killing me please stop.

    Corps would never pass savings on to the consumer in the U.S. They’d put it in the pockets of the executives.

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  • JG

    “If OEMs took over as carriers then, in theory, roaming could be eradicated and we could switch to the best service wherever we happened to be.”

    I kind of like this idea and it might not be too far off something like this could be a reality (technically at least).

    Verizon is planning on starting to roll out VoLTE by the end of 2015 and eventually begin to phase out their CDMA network, and I would imagine Sprint plans to do similar. So in the not too distant future everyone will be using GSM networks, it’ll just be a matter of getting a radio tuned into everyone’s frequencies.

    At which point, my new phone can check in with every tower in its range (and wifi networks to?) to find the tower that will give me the best service (based solely on signal strength, how many other users are logged into the tower, etc not who operates it). Essentially this would merge everyone’s maps into one giant nationwide network, as far as the end user (aka me) is concerned. There would be no more dead zones as long as at least one carrier had signal in the area.

    At the end of the month, I pay Company X (either a new clearing house representing all the carriers combined or my phones OEM or whoever) $45 for service. They figure out I was on Verizon 75% of the time, AT&T 20% and Sprint 5% and pays them accordingly. Carriers should be motivated to still work on expanding and improving their networks. The better the network, the more people will be accessing it and the more money they get.

  • whocares999

    I agree with JG, I am a communications expert and have worked with the military for quite a while. I see one day in the near future that something along those lines will happen. There will be some caveats though as what your proposing is ideal for consumers not necessarily ideal for businesses. Apple do hold a patent relating to ‘soft sim’ idea. A benefit of this is that the allocating of the phone number would in essence be done by Apple. You could then buy or rent more than one phone number from them without the costly need to rent another line with your mobile network provider. Most networks though tend to limit extra lines to just 1 extra. Also by controlling the number more tightly they can have better bargaining power when negotiating with mobile networks. Apple for instance is planning to sell phones in Apple stores in America that are without monthly plans. As far as I am aware in America you buy an Iphone with a network plan attached , I.E verizon or AT&T etc. Or you can buy unlocked which is sim free though. This is a sign that Apple are starting to take more control and Tim Cook has I think voiced concerns that he would like to try to stop networks effectively subsidising Iphones. So perhaps this could be the start.
    I for one would like to see the end of networks dominating and controlling things the way they do.
    it would be beneficial for everyone if soft sims where widespread and became the norm.
    it would also I think enable and encourage the phone makers such as Apple and Samsung to innovate in this area by developing next generation services and features that to date are the preserve of the military.

    Just imagine for instance being able to (in addition to JG’s post) being able to rent (for a small fee per month) an extra phone number of several even. Each would be a normal number. That way you could have one just for your friends, One for your loved one , one for your Family(mum, dad etc), one just for work and one each for any business that needs to get in contact with you.
    That way it could help cut down or eliminate cold calls, you would know who was ringing before you answered even if they with held their number.
    When you text a contact say, it would automatically send it from the number that has been allocated to that contact in your phone book. if it is a number not in your phone book then you can decide which number it is sent from. Just like email.
    I am sure you can see the possibilities.
    There are solutions out there at the moment but they are mismatched. For instance you can buy or rent personal numbers or so called Follow Me numbers that are 070. Though you can not text them or from them and are expensive to call.
    You can buy or rent virtual numbers but (in the UK here at least) they tend to be only landlines with area codes for cities. or Non geographic numbers such as 0870, 0845 etc.

    I hope that firms such as apple or Samsung etc push this idea and make it happen