The eSIM is on the way in, but not too quickly


The SIM is now almost a relic. It has nearly hit the ripe old age of 25 years. In many ways, it’s surprising that the SIM hasn’t been superseded by some other innovation a long time before now. The SIM has succeeded by providing a secure means of accessing mobile networks. We’ve come to accept it and grown used to what is, frankly, a cumbersome process. We can change TV channels without a physical SIM in our remotes. We can even change energy companies. Why do we need a computer chip in a piece of plastic to change wireless networks ? Perhaps we don’t….

The SIMs, they are a changin

The eSIM is attracting a lot of interest at the moment. We are entering the end of 2017 and will shortly be confronted with a SIMless age. Starting with the Apple watch, contact with a mobile network operator will not be necessary in order to sign up to a phone network.

When you think about it, it makes sense that we’ve arrived here. Phones already have chips embedded to enable the device to be used for its various communication purposes. It’s only a matter of adding more to a chip that would enable SIMless phones.

There are more and more major telcos like Vodafone, Telstra and Optus in Australia which are shutting up their storefronts and conducting all their business online. That means that if you want a SIMcard you have to go online to purchase one and wait for it to be delivered through your letterbox. Straightforward enough really, but annoying because the face to face communication is lost.

This is all good preparation for the SIMless phone which will further broaden the MVNOs you will have the choice to sign up to. If you are not happy with one, you can easily change to another online without the need to buy a SIM or be physically sighted by a phone company seller.

Pros and cons of the eSIM


  • No need to visit a phone company
  • No need to wait for a mail delivery
  • Easier to change a mobile service operator
  • Less electronic waste in the environment.


  • Possible security lapses and government spying
  • Unsure who is responsible if the SIM in the phone fails
  • Difficulty switching devices as a SIM won’t be present to remove.

The “S” in the word SIM means “subscriber,” implying that the SIM owner is paying to own the SIM over a period of time. Forecasters are indicating that this model is likely to persist for some time to come. However, the rolling out of 5G in the not–too-distant future could change the pathway for SIMless devices, such as IoT applications and MuLTEFire and LTE-U which as unlicensed-band versions might operate privately owned.

There are some mobile Machine2Machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices which have embedded SIMs which are soldered inside the device (called “MFFs”). These normally are pre-programmed before purchase with a specified mobile operator’s unique information. The owner is not able to change networks with this sort of device. This situation might be okay for some sorts of devices but even buying locked phones are becoming out of fashion with the consumer market as it not only makes this difficult for the owner to change networks going overseas becomes problematic too.

Rollout date for eSIMS for phones

The prediction is that by 2021 in 5 years probably 10 percent of SIMcards will have disappeared and SIMless phones will have replaced them. This is not to say that other devices apart from phones will have gone SIMless earlier as some wearables, tablets and even cars are not far off becoming eSIM recipients. Smartphones aren’t top of the priority list at the moment despite Apple’s SIM in a few of its iPads and Google’s multi-IMSI SIM gimmick in its Fi range. There are technical standards that need to be considered.

SIMS don’t just appear from nowhere

When a new electronic device is released it’s not before a lot of research and discussions have taken place, such as:

  • Working out the cost of eSIMs and cellular radio in lower-end devices;
  • The eSIM business scenario for both the device seller and the network operator;
  • Issues related to the users potential experience;
  • Regulatory questions;
  • Operational difficulties in for example IoT device retail channels;
  • The fitting of the eSIM with other up and coming telecommunication’s megatrends, such as 5G.

Phone manufacturers affected the most

OEMs will have to overcome the hurdle of providing smart phones which take SIMS but can be SIMless. SIMless is on its way, whether we like it or not, and it is expected that between 346 and 864 million eSIM handsets will be manufactured annually up to 2020. By the end of this decade alone the SIM card industry will experience drops in shipment by 16 percent.

So far mobile phone are found throughout the world from the poorest to the richest nations the ubiquitous mobile phone can be seen flashing on road sides, on buses, on village and city streets, in school yards and multi-billion office blocks it can’t be missed. It is safe to say that they have been one of the most successful inventions of all times.

How mobile subscribers will be affected

Currently, subscribers buy a SIM from an MNO and sign up to a plan of some type or another. This could all change with the eSIM as it could mean the end-users will have far more freedom to choose and switch between providers. Until now, MNOs have been slow to change what they offer as they have had complete ownership of SIM cards and eSIMs are likely to bring the flexibility that the customer has been waiting for thus taking away the privileged relationship that MNOs have had in the last 25 years. GSMA is now working on specifications to covering eSIMs on a consumer’s device which is yet to be released.


Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.