If you could somehow transport yourself back in time 50 years, you’d find yourself in a very different world, personal-communications-wise. Obviously there would be no smartphones — no cell phones of any kind, really — and if you wanted to have a wired telephone (your only option at the time), you would by necessity be dealing with what was lovingly (well, sort of) called “Ma Bell.” The historic breakup of the Bell System was still 14 years away, so in 1968 telephones in the U.S. were still under the complete control of a monopoly. Not only was this the only company that could provide phone service, the Bell System was also the sole legal provider of telephone equipment.
If you had a telephone in your home, it was installed by “the phone company,” it was produced by one of their subsidiaries, and technically, the Bell System owned the phone. All you were really doing each month was paying a bill for the service.
In 2018, you can buy any sort of telephone you want, practically anywhere you want, and plug it into a service provided by any of a number of competing services. Landline phone service might still be provided by a more-or-less traditional sort of phone company, but it might also be bundled along with your internet service and television in a package you get from what used to be the “cable TV company” — at least, if you still have landline service at all.
More and more people are going without a traditional home phone, instead relying solely on their cell phones. Oddly enough, though, cell service (and the market for the phones themselves) in some ways looks a lot more like the traditional “Ma Bell” model. Sure, there are lots of competing cell service providers, and if a lot of people still buy a phone tied to (and generally subsidized by) a particular carrier.
That may be about to change, thanks to a single tiny little component.
The Subscriber Identification Module is the standard means of storing that information that makes your phone yours; a set of numbers, encryption keys, and other data that uniquely identifies your phone to the network.
If you’ve ever switched a phone from one carrier to another, you’ve had to deal with the ubiquitous SIM card. The Subscriber Identification Module is the standard means of storing what makes your phone yours — a set of numbers, encryption keys, and other data that uniquely identifies your phone to the network, associates it with your account with a specific carrier, and authorizes your use of the system.
The SIM card also usually stores certain personal information, like your contacts list. We’ve had SIM cards in phones since 1991, and about the only change in the technology readily apparent to the user is that they’ve continued to shrink, with a new, smaller generation of SIM cards introduced every 6-8 years.
The most recent, the nano-SIM, launched in 2012 and is just over a square centimeter in size. It still functions, though, pretty much as SIM cards always have. You get a card from your chosen carrier, and install it into your phone as part of activating your service with that carrier. In many if not most cases, the card comes with the phone and you’re locked to that carrier. Trying to get a locked phone unlocked by the carrier it “belongs” to can be an incredible exercise in frustration.
What is eSIM?
The most recent evolution of the SIM, per a specification released two years ago by the GSMA (the international association of cell network operators and related businesses), takes the size reduction of the SIM card to its ultimate extreme with the”eSIM” (embedded SIM) standard, where there’s no physical card at all! Instead, the eSIM system uses a tiny device directly soldered into the phone’s circuitry.
This system really breaks with the past because it is fully reprogrammable. A phone using the eSIM standard can be reprogrammed as needed to change carriers and modify restrictions or permissions. This has also required the development of standards for the remote provisioning of the eSIM, meaning the updating of the SIM information is done over the cellular network rather than by physically changing a card. In fact, the standards require updating only over the cell network — a good thing, as these networks are a good deal more secure than the typical Wi-Fi connection.
It’s not the first time someone tried to do away with the traditional SIM model. A few years back, NTT Docomo floated the idea of a portable SIM, but it never really went anywhere. With the official backing of the GSMA, the move to eSIM now looks like a sure thing.
This seems like a relatively small and simple change — just moving from a physical, removable card to an embedded device — but the remote provisioning system is really what contains the seed of revolution. A simple, standardized means of reprogramming the information embedded in the phone tilts the balance of power away from the cell network operators and toward the phone manufacturers and device retailers.
Almost all phones could wind up being sold effectively 'unlocked,' with the user buying service from any desired carrier (and just as easily changing carriers) as they see fit.
Under this model, almost all phones could wind up being sold effectively “unlocked,” with the user buying service from any desired carrier (and just as easily changing carriers) as they see fit. Further, it would be possible for a single device to be registered with multiple operators or carriers (although only one operator may be active at any given time on any single device), permitting users to readily choose the best option for a given location while on-the-go.
International travelers could have their lives greatly simplified as well. Getting service in another country will become as easy as signing on as a short-term user with your phone upon arrival, or even before. You’ll be able to sign on with whoever is offering the best deal for you.
Smartwatches, fitness trackers, and similar small-form-factor personal devices, all part of the growing Internet of Things (IoT), will benefit from the adoption of the eSIM and its accompanying infrastructure.
Devices that support eSIM
The much smaller form factor and low power consumption of the eSIM device will also help future smartwatches, fitness trackers, and similar small-form-factor personal devices. Every part of the growing Internet of Things (IoT) will benefit from the adoption of the eSIM and its accompanying infrastructure. Current industry forecasts predict a total of 25 to 75 billion connected devices in use by 2020, with a sizable portion being these new smaller products. There are even additional benefits for the smartphone market. Battery technology is already to the point where needing to replace the battery during the life of the phone is no longer a concern. Needing to replace the traditional SIM card has been the only thing requiring an opening in the phone’s case. Eliminate this, and everything else (including the now nearly-ubiquitous USB Type-C connector, handling charging, data, and audio/video) is pretty easy to seal up. Phones can become a lot more rugged, further resisting the elements and even being immersed in liquids without damage.
About the only downside will needing to be a bit more attentive when disposing of a phone (or passing it on to someone else). Just pulling your SIM card (after scrubbing out your music and photos) won’t be enough to clear the device of personal information. You’ll have to do an equally good job of eliminating the data on the eSIM. Presumably, the tools to do this will also become commonplace.
Apple recently started shipping eSIM in the new iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR. Apple also shipped eSIM in the new 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro tablets, along with 2018’s Apple Watch Series 4 and 2017’s Apple Watch Series 3. The company previously shipped eSIM in the older iPad Pros.
Google's Pixel 2 and 2XL, introduced a year ago, were the first smartphones to support the new standard.
Google had already released an eSIM Manager app on Google Play, but the recently-released Android Pie has built-in API support for the eUICC (embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card) devices on which the eSIM system is based (and so no longer needs the separate eSIM Manager app). The Pixel 3 line of course ships with Android Pie installed, and like its predecessor, comes with a nano-SIM slot and eSIM capabilities (though both can’t be active at the same time).
Other Android phone makers will likely follow suit. Most industry watchers expect the top-tier phone makers such as Samsung and Huawei to include eSIM technology in their 2019 products. We’re also starting to see activity from second- and third-tier makers already. NUU Mobile — a Chinese maker of lower-cost, unlocked phones — released its latest flagship, the X5, with dual-SIM support, including an eSIM. We should also be seeing a lot more product announcements featuring eSIM capabilities over the next few months and into the new year.
Stand by for a major change in how we buy — and change — our phone service. As always seems to be the case in this market, things are about to get interesting.