eSIM: How Much Should Operators Worry?

Executive Briefing Service, Network Futures

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The evolution of eSIMs, supporting remote provisioning of mobile operators’ profiles, could allow new IoT devices and business-models to thrive. However, the promise is countered by fears that eSIM could enable Internet companies and device manufacturers to become connectivity gatekeepers. We analyse the threats, opportunities and practicalities, and give our view of the likely outcomes.

Introduction: What is eSIM? Or RSP?

There is a lot of confusion around what eSIM actually means. While the “e” is often just assumed to stand for “embedded”, this is only half the story – and one which various people in the industry are trying to change.

In theory the term “eSIM” refers only to the functionality of “remote provisioning”; that is, the ability to download an operator profile to an in-market SIM (and also potentially switch between profiles or delete them). This contrasts with the traditional methods of pre-provisioning specific, fixed profiles into SIMs during manufacture. Most SIMs today have a particular operator’s identity and encryption credentials set at the factory. This is true of both the familiar removable SIM cards used in mobile phones, and the “soldered-in” form used in some M2M devices.

In other words, the original “e” was a poor choice – it was intended to stand for “enhanced”, “electronic” or just imply “new and online” like eCommerce or eGovernment. In fact, the first use in 2011 was for eUICC – the snappier term eSIM only emerged a couple of years later. UICCs (Universal Integrated Circuit Cards) are the smart-card chips themselves, that are used both in SIMs and other applications, for example, bank, transport and access-security cards. Embedded, solderable SIMs have existed for certain M2M uses since 2010.

In an attempt to separate out the “form factor” (removable vs. embedded) aspect from the capability (remote vs. factory provisioned), the term RSP sometimes gets used, standing for Remote SIM Provisioning. This is the title of GSMA’s current standard. But unsurprisingly, the nicer term eSIM is hard to dislodge in observers’ consciousness, so it is likely to stick around. Most now think of eSIMs as having both the remote-provisioning function and an embedded non-removable form-factor. In theory, we might even get remote-provisioning for removable SIMs (the 2014 Apple SIM was a non-standard version of this).

Figure 1: What does eSIM actually mean?

Source: Disruptive Analysis

This picture is further muddied by different sets of GSMA standards for M2M and consumer use-cases at present, where the latter involves some way for the end-user to choose which profiles to download and when to activate them – for example, linking a new cellular tablet to an existing data-plan. This is different to a connected car or an industrial M2M use-case, where the manufacturer designs in the connectivity, and perhaps needs to manage whole “fleets” of eSIMs together. The GSMA M2M version of the standards were first released in 2013, and the first consumer specifications were only released in 2016. Both are being enhanced over time, and there are intentions to develop a converged M2M/consumer specification, probably in H2 2017.

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: What is eSIM? Or RSP?
  • Not a Soft-SIM, or multi-IMSI
  • What do stakeholders hope to gain?
  • A million practical problems So where does eSIM make sense?
  • Phones or just IoT?
  • Forecasts for eSIM
  • Conclusion 

 

  • Figure 1: What does eSIM actually mean?
  • Figure 2: eSIM standardisation & industry initiatives timeline
  • Figure 3: eSIM shipment forecasts, by device category, 2016-2021

Technologies and industry terms referenced include: , , , , , , , , ,