SA sees sluggish growth in eSIM adoption

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 06 Mar 2023

While South Africa’s telecoms operators have over the years been ramping up eSIM services, uptake of eSIM-embedded devices is growing at a much slower pace than global counterparts.

This is according industry insiders, who say despite progress in the availability of eSIM devices, uptake of eSIM (electronic-SIM) services remains sluggish as a result of several factors.

Globally, embedded SIM cards have already been included in a wide range of newer high-end iOS and Android phone models, including Apple, Samsung, Motorola, Huawei, Oppo and Sony.

However, only a handful of these are available to the local market – despite the fact that all four big telcos offer eSIM devices and services in SA.

There are also technical complexities associated with connecting the service, which require telcos to educate end-users and work on improving the customer experience and thus the benefit thereof, they say.

eSIM is a digital SIM that allows users to activate their tariff plan from a carrier without having to use a physical SIM. It uses a small chip to authenticate a user’s identity with their carrier, as part of a global specification developed by telecoms trade body, the GSM Association.

Embedded into the hardware of a smartphone device, it allows consumers to simultaneously store multiple operator profiles on one mobile device, and switch between them remotely, though only one can be used at a time.

The new frontier in SIM technology has been touted as a game-changer in phone connectivity, with experts saying it will play an important role in accelerating the local mobile virtual network operator market.

The technology, according to experts, will eventually be adopted across all phones, to become mainstream within the next five years globally, as the traditional SIM card is slowly phased out.

However, high costs remain the key barrier to adoption, says Arnold Ponela, IDC senior research analyst for mobile technologies and image printing and document solutions for SA and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The adoption of eSIM in the mobile phone market has not been smooth or easy. Although eSIM has been around for nearly five years in South Africa, uptake has been limited. This technology is currently limited to premium devices from Apple and Samsung, yet SA is a market dominated by entry-level and mid-range devices.”

According to Ponela, the task of adhering to a new standard that affects the design and interaction of phone hardware and software is still costly for entry-level and mid-range vendors.

“However, like any other technology, as more vendors start supplying eSIM-supporting phones, the technology will be more affordable and more accessible to consumers.”

Arnold Ponela, IDC senior research analyst for mobile technologies and image printing and document solutions for SA and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Arnold Ponela, IDC senior research analyst for mobile technologies and image printing and document solutions for SA and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Vodacom was the first local telco to introduce eSIM support for wearables, with the launch of its OneNumber service in March 2019. In October the same year, MTN launched its eSIM support capability. In 2021, Telkom and Cell C followed suit.

Vodacom and MTN offer eSIM services across a range of devices, including wearables, but only for contract subscribers, while Cell C and Telkom are the only networks in the country that offer eSIM on prepaid services.

A Telkom spokesperson tells ITWeb that limited device options and the eSIM connectivity process being marred by technical complexities are key barriers to adoption.

For example, getting the mobile subscription downloaded from the operator directly to the eSIM and then into the smartphone requires the device to be connected to the internet, preferably a WiFi connection.

As a solution to this, the telco provides eSIM services via a “voucher” system, which provides a QR code as part of a SIM pack – to enable seamless connectivity.

“Due to limited devices that support eSIM, uptake of eSIM services on Telkom is fairly low, as these devices are mainly top-end OEM devices and fairly expensive,” says the Telkom spokesperson.

“eSIM is a complex and evolving technology with many dependencies. Due to these complexities, Telkom has chosen to only support handheld devices at this stage, as we expect new GSMA specifications to be released, which will require changes to our current systems.”

As a result, the industry is investigating other ways to deliver a user-friendly experience for eSIM-based mobile subscription activation.

Telkom says it continues to work to enhance the experience on the eSIM ecosystem, which includes wearables and other IOT devices that depend on eSIM technology.

Cell C says a large part of its eSIM strategy is to improve overall security and user experience.

“Availability of devices that enable eSIMs is one of the barriers to support of the eSIM technology. eSIMs also present a change in how a customer sets up their handset, which means user education and simplifying the journey, whilst still ensuring security of the network, is an ongoing effort in the implementation of eSIM.

“A key part of Cell C’s strategy is to simplify the customer journey, improve security and the overall experience of our customers.”

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive of corporate affairs at MTN SA, tells ITWeb that although the telco has seen wider adoption of eSIM in established markets, like the US and Europe, growth remains slow in SA.

“MTN has been actively working with handset and device manufacturers to determine the way forward for provisioning options related to eSIM. There are already views that eSIM will become more flexible to allow for quicker adoption through the use of additional technology components.

“One of the key considerations is to permit the adoption of eSIM across handset manufacturers in the easiest way – which includes the use of QR codes or direct eSIM provisioning to the handset or device,” explains O’Sullivan.

MTN plans to launch eSIM for prepaid customers as a self-service option for those who wish to swap from traditional SIM card to eSIM.

A Vodacom spokesperson tells ITWeb the telco has seen an increase in eSIM device sales across its portfolio.

“This shows that local customers are purchasing eSIM devices. We support a large range of wearables, including the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy watch series, with over one million eSIM-enabled devices.”