Introduction to eSIM Technology: Pros and Cons of the New Digital Communication Solution

Introduction to eSIM Technology: Pros and Cons of the New Digital Communication Solution

Although the concept of a virtual SIM card has been around since 2015, eSIM technology may seem quite novel and just gathering public attention around its huge potential. Let's figure out 

SIM technology evolution background

Traditionally, to become a new cell phone user, one has to choose a network operator, depending on the existing coverage in their area, their needs and budget. Then it comes to buying a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card that is programmed to contain the data necessary to access the mobile network services.

However, the SIM card is a property of a network provider, which means that to connect to a different network one will need to buy a new SIM card from another cellular operator.

SIM card operation

Source gsma.com

Partly this problem was solved with dual SIM phones, which eliminated the necessity of swapping SIM cards every time you needed to access another network. 

But wouldn't it be nice to be able to connect one SIM to several network operators regarding the current needs and coverage quality in the selected location? The idea of a programmable SIM card set the foundation for the eSIM technology concept.

What is an eSIM?

The term eSIM stands for Embedded Subscriber Identity Module, and encompasses all of the following:

- an integrated circuit (IC) that functions as a reprogrammable SIM card 

- software that is used to program the IC mentioned above

- platform that enables the software deployment. 

Another name often used for eSIM is Embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card (eUICC).

In fact, it may be more appropriate, since SIM only makes the device recognizable by the network carrier. UICC, besides containing SIM, can store some data, e.g. contacts list and text messages, enable roaming and account management (yes, those are the ones we've been using for over a decade and inertially still call them SIM cards.)

A truly embedded eSIM is a surface-mounted device (smd) that is soldered directly into the system. It is capable of creating virtual SIM profiles that function just like ordinary SIM cards. Although nowadays only a limited number of gadgets have eSIM configuration, the eUICC can be realized in different SIM form factors, making it compatible with all devices that work with traditional SIM cards.  

So is eSIM a new technological breakthrough, and does it have a potential to bring digital communication to a new qualitative level? Let’s take a closer look at how eSIM works and what it has to offer.

How does a virtual SIM card work?

It doesn’t take any special competence to become a new eSIM user as the process of its activation and further support is quite intuitive.

  1. The user subscribes to a selected service plan offered by a chosen network operator. Usually all it takes is either to scan the provided QR code, or follow the respective URL, or, in case of manual activation, one needs to enter SM-DP+ (Subscription Manager-Data Preparation) required data like confirmation code, token, etc.  
  2. This begins a profile package download and installation. That's when the mobile network provider is notified about the new profile that was created, and checks the provided data.  
  3. After the installation is completed the user confirms the download. Some of the eSIM service providers require to indicate the name of the carrier in mobile data settings, which is done just with a few clicks. 
  4. To stay connected, top up the account online when necessary, and that’s it.
eSIM operation

Source gsma.com

Benefits for end users

  • Save time while choosing the cellular network operator and activating the eSIM online. 
  • No need to buy an additional SIM card to connect your device to a few service providers. No more wasting time on changing SIM cards, let alone carrying a few cell phones.
  • Stay connected wherever you go by choosing the network with the strongest signal in your area. 
  • Enhance your international travel experience by connecting to local mobile network providers in no time instead of worrying about roaming.
  • With embedded eSIM no maintenance is needed and there's no chance to lose a SIM card. Have you ever got a message that the SIM card was not detected or was missing? Now you can forget about those, since most often they were caused by a slot (or connector) malfunctioning, especially when some dust got into it. 
  • Ability to connect your digital devices (laptop, smartwatch, tablet, etc.) to one network. eSIM technology is in a stage of active implementation into everyday life, and although not all devices currently support it, their number is growing steadily. 

    A sea change potential here lies in eSIM application for the IoT and AI, enabling the connection of multiple devices globally. The devices become not just lighter, but more reliable without SIM connectors. On top of that, they can be managed remotely with no need for manual SIM changing once it's required to switch to another cellular network.

  • If you do not plan to change your device for the one with an embedded eSIM, no worries! There are "standard" eSIM cards that work with any gadget that supports SIM cards, and allow enjoying just the same services as truly embedded eSIMs. 

    There also are portable eSIM modules that are compatible with the IoT devices without embedded UICC. It's very convenient for already existing M2M solutions, since there's no need to change all equipment in order to bring these projects to a new level with eSIM functionality.  

  • High level of data security.

Benefits for mobile network operators

  • Adding value to the offered services by broadening their functionality
  • Ability to get more new customers online, with no additional costs for physical SIM card packages, rent of the store departments and retail workers salary
  • Ability to increase corporate subscriptions, since eSIM provides more flexibility for business communication technologies management
  • Ability to provide services for machine-to-machine (M2M) applications, including the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI)

Challenges of eSIM implementation

  • Limited number of eSIM service providers. Not all mobile network carriers are adopting eSIM technology. Some of the cellular operators are successful with smaller local target audiences who may have no intention and need to switch to eSIM. 

    On top of that, eSIM lets customers create and delete their user profiles almost instantaneously. It's convenient for the clients, but makes life harder for the operators who would like the customers to stick with their services.

  • Device compatibility. Currently, the number of devices with eSIM ICs is limited. When it comes to local mobile operators, very few, if any, of them provide so-called standard eSIM - the one that is compatible with any device that works with a SIM card. 

    eSIMs within standard form factors are sometimes offered by larger international platforms that sign agreements on cooperation with the local providers. However, since not all carriers collaborate in such a way, as for now, the chances are high that you will not be able to connect to a preferred network.  

  • High cost. Paid subscriptions to extended functionality: although there's no necessity of buying physical SIM cards, a subscriber has to pay extra fees for each new SIM profile registration or device connection. Some operators charge for the amount of data one can use within a fixed period of time, increasing the price if any of these parameters enlarge. 

    Basic eSIM service plans are often more costly compared to the traditional ones offered by local cellular providers. They usually make sense only when traveling abroad or for M2M applications like IoT, AI, etc.

  • Country politics.  In some countries (e.g. China, Russia) there are legislative restrictions when purchasing a new SIM card. For example, in Russia one may buy a new SIM package only when they demonstrate their passport, thus a phone number is assigned to a particular person. 

    No wonder, with such rules, legislative systems were simply not ready for implementation of the eSIM technology. Since eUICCs are taking over the world, even the countries with restrictions take steps not to lag behind.

    Some governments approved the use of eSIM for the customers who provide their biometric data using a Unified Biometric System (UBS). It still contradicts the idea of freedom of connectivity but at least is a step towards it.

Global eSIM operators

Airalo: a platform that works in 92 countries, offers local (per country), regional (Africa, Asia, Carribean Islands and Europe) and global (all 92 countries with Airalo partners) eSIM plans. It offers a convenient Airalo app, where a user can pick their destination country, choose the data plan that suits them best, and activate the SIM. A user can activate multiple SIM profiles while traveling abroad, and still be available from their local phone number.

GigSky: Besides personal and corporate data plans across over 190 countries, the ability to connect laptop, tablet, and other digital devices to the eSIM data, GigSky offers solutions for M2M (Machine-to-Machine) and IoT applications. The latter are facilitated with:

  • the ability to customize each solution according to its application with the help of IoT experts team
  • automatic carrier switching: if a signal strength gets lower than desired the devices automatically switch to another network with a better signal quality
  • real-time data consumption monitoring: user can configure the data consumption peculiarities for each of the connected devices, monitor their data traffic, get notifications about approaching the set limits or overuse
  • real-time snapshots with the current price for the eSIM services.

The corporate eSIM plans are not prepaid, so there's no threat of traffic overuse and being disconnected without on-time top up, or, on the contrary, paying extra for the never used functionality. They are quite flexible and can be customized, adding such features as corporate VPN, malicious website blocking, URL and app blacklisting.

MTX Connect: Internet access in all the countries with MTX cellular network coverage. The rates depend on data volume purchased, duration of a subscription, chosen location and some other factors. Flexible personal and corporate service plans, including an offer to get up to ten eSIMs for the price of one.

Knowroaming: Similarly to MTX Connect, Knowroaming provides only Internet access, which means that cellular network calls and SMS are not available through eSIM. It also has local per-country and global data plans. No corporate offers are available.

Conclusions

It may take some time for eSIM technology to firmly establish itself in the digital communications market.  However, considering the reliability, security, simplicity and convenience of eSIM, we at Apiko are pretty sure it is going to become a regular part of everyday life.

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