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eSIM will be game-changer in phone connectivity

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 11 Nov 2019

Electronic SIM, or eSIM, is poised to become mainstream across mobile phones, as more smartphone manufacturers integrate embedded SIM technology into their devices.

ICT experts believe the current SIM card may be obsolete in the next decade, as more wearables, tablets, laptops and mobile phones use the evolution of the SIM – the eSIM.

eSIM is a small chip used to authenticate a user’s identity with their carrier, as part of a global specification developed by telecoms trade body, the GSMA.

The eSIM allows consumers to store multiple operator profiles on one mobile device simultaneously, and switch between them remotely, though only one can be used at a time.

Embedded SIM cards have already been included in several iOS and Android devices, including the new iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, XS, XS Max, XR, and the Google Pixel 3, 3 XL, 4 and 4 XL.

Rumour has it that Huawei and Samsung will be the next to adopt eSIM in their next-generation smart devices.

With time, eSIM is expected to extend to a wider range of devices, allowing machine-to-machine connectivity with an array of technologies used in the workplace, at home and in connected vehicles.

Ramping up adoption

Sabelo Dlamini, senior research and consulting manager at IDC, says eSIM technology will be a game-changer in cellular connectivity.

“eSIM technology will eventually become adopted across all phones, with the capability expected to become mainstream within the next five years or so. Industry giants Apple and Samsung will lead the adoption trend.

“eSIM technology has been in existence for some time now, but it’s the adoption that has been slow. With the increased adoption of Internet of things (IOT), this has been on the upward trend, driven by reduced SIM card administration process, enhanced international roaming experience and the convenience of moving between operators.”

Unlike traditional SIM cards which are locked to their networks, eSIM enables the adoption of any supporting network by downloading settings over-the-air, allowing multiple SIM profiles on a single device, and swapping between operators via the device’s software settings, with the option to use one or several mobile numbers.

In SA, operators are working on supporting the service, which is expected to increase competition, while providing operators with an opportunity to cross-sell service plans, across the consumer and enterprise markets.

In March, Vodacom was the first local telco to introduce eSIM support technology OneNumber, which enables customers to use a single mobile number across a number of devices.

Last month, MTN announced its eSIM support is livefor local prepaid customers who use the 42mm Samsung Galaxy Watch.

Data-only service provider Rain haspartneredwith Truphone to launch an eSIM service.

eSIM for all

Dr Charley Lewis, independent ICT analyst and researcher, says while it will initially start with high-end phones, eSIM will move into mid-range and eventually low-end smartphones.

“The move to embedded SIM technology is a no-brainer. The current SIM was a clunky solution to a security and memory challenge back in the days when mobile phones were the size of bricks, and has surely outlived its usefulness in the same way that rotary dial wheels have come and gone on handsets.”

The move to eSIM won’t do away with the regulatory and security processes associated with the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act, it will merely streamline it, he points out.

“Replacing the traditional SIM with an embedded chip has a number of advantages for consumers: it will simplify and streamline the process of number portability, and will allow a single phone number to be associated with more than one terminal device. It will also be valuable for international travellers who will no longer need to buy a new SIM card for each country they visit.”

Furthermore, Lewis believes removing one more external port on the handset will free up space on the phone, either for other features or a slimmer device – eliminating an unnecessary interface and a possible point of failure, or source for dust or water to enter the handset.

While eSIMs are expected to offer service bundling options for consumers, increased churn is a big concern for telcos, as they will allow prepaid subscribers to easily take advantage of better deals from other operators.

Orange’s research arm, Hello Future, predicts 100% of smartphones will be eSIM-fitted by 2030. The introduction will be gradual while manufacturers initially maintain the SIM tray in the smartphone, it says.

Jody Carollissen, GM at execMobile, explains: “The eSIM will ensure that when a phone is lost or stolen, the user can immediately gain access to their eSIM, as they would have the QR code from the initial purchase, and seamlessly scan the profile onto the new phone. Whereas currently, the user will need to visit the local operator store, purchase a new SIM and follow the lengthy process of regaining the original number.

“In addition, criminals cannot access the user’s eSIM card and rake up large bills or perform illegal activities, as with the physical SIM, which can be removed and placed into another device.”

However, Carollissen warns eSIM comes with security risks: “Even though eSIM offers security and the ability to be reprogrammed, there is a concern of hacking into the cloud hosting the eSIM. Also, while network operators are offering the eSIM for smart watches, it’s clear their customers still lack the know-how.”

Lewis highlights the cyber security issues that will need to be addressed before eSIMs become mainstream.

“Fraud through unauthorised eSIM-swapping will remain a threat, possibly exacerbated by unauthorised and undetected fraudulent addition of another device to the user’s phone number.

“Another downside is that swapping between devices will no longer be a simple action that can be done by the user without any involvement on the part of the service provider. This downside may have potential implications for the prepaid market, where there is a far greater propensity for users to switch between devices and service providers.”


Driving IOT

Businesses will be able to use eSIMs to improve their customer experience, while accelerating their IOT deployments to increase productivity and ease of administration.

Ofentse Dazela, director: pricing research at Africa Analysis, explains: “The technology is expected to be a key growth driver for IOT. The advent of eSIM in the local market will mostly benefit businesses that use IOT technologies. This includes those that have large-scale machine-to-machine deployments that use thousands of pieces of hardware requiring mobile connectivity.”

Installation of SIM cards in each unit is costly and time-consuming, and eSIMs allow remote connectivity to a mobile network, he adds.

“eSIM technology has the capability to remotely provision, authenticate and manage network access for the mass deployment of devices. The technology will also enable IT teams to provision and deploy new devices in a rapid and convenient manner.”

Sherry Zameer, SVP, mobile services and IOT at Gemalto for CISMEA, says eSIM adoption will allow automotive manufacturers to sign fleet contracts for connectivity from local operators.

“eSIMs will open up a new line of enterprise business for the mobile operators and automotive manufacturers. Mobile operators will have to make the investment in eSIM management platforms to be relevant for the future and then compete for eSIM subscriptions to build critical mass of transactions to realise the return on investment potential.”

Zameer adds the eSIM switchover will require operators to educate customers on the user experience and benefits.