eSIM: What is it and why it should interest you

science SCIENCE / TECHNOLOGY
Published:

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Apple recently started shipping eSIM in the new iPhone XS and XS Max. Google’s Pixel 2 and 2XL, introduced a year ago, were the first smartphones to support the new standard — at least if you were a subscriber to Google’s Project Fi service.

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).

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.


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