The History of eSIM: Then, Now & in the Future

The History of eSIM: Then, Now, and In the Future
Illustration: © IoT For All

New technology developments can take time to get a foothold in the market, and eSIM has been one of many when it comes to IoT – and for several reasons. Carrier support, longevity concerns, and others have tempered the trajectory of eSIM, but analysts are estimating that eSIM is well on the rise. Let’s take a look at the history of eSIM, why eSIM was developed, the challenges this technology seeks to overcome, and where it and similar developments are evolving.

“Carrier support, longevity concerns, and others have tempered the trajectory of eSIM, but analysts are estimating that eSIM is well on the rise.”

-KORE Wireless

eSIM: Then

The SIM card has been essential to mobile communications for more than 25 years and has seen several iterations as it has shrunk in size but expanded in capabilities. The eSIM, or embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card (eUICC), is helping mitigate some of the challenges that have risen due to traditional SIM cards, both in the consumer and the Internet of Things (IoT) sectors.

Think back to not very long ago when smartphone activation required the insertion of a SIM card. No matter the mobile operator used, the SIM card was configured to that operator’s network – making it carrier dependent. If a smartphone user wanted to switch carriers, it meant a new SIM card.

Apply that same logic to IoT, where hundreds or thousands of devices need to be configured to a network by physically inserting a SIM card. If an event or decision prompted the need for new carrier connectivity, those devices had to be removed from the field, and the old SIM cards needed to be replaced with the new carrier-specific SIM cards.

Add in the difficulty of roaming, where non-native devices could only connect to “foreign” networks for short periods, and the traditional carrier-dependent SIM card approach became a stumbling block for widespread IoT with longevity.

The Beginning of eSIM

As for the history of eSIM technology, it was originally developed by the GSMA in 2012 and started in the consumer sector with use cases in automotive, smart home devices, smartphones, tablets, and wearables. Apple most notably began widely using it in its suite of products in 2018 and 2019.

For IoT use, growth has been less explosive as the return on investment has taken more time to prove in certain use cases. It is an upfront investment, and carrier adoption was initially sluggish. However, carrier adoption has increased to a reported 200 carriers, and IoT is estimated to be the fastest-growing sector globally for eSIM adoption.

Why eSIM?

IoT is not a new segment of the technology industry and many solutions have fared well without leveraging eSIM. There are significant opportunities in eSIM:

  1. Global Connectivity: Global connectivity has always been a challenge for IoT because the carrier ecosystem is so fragmented. With the ability of eSIM to connect to different carriers, lock-in is avoided.

  2. Future-Proofed Connectivity: Many IoT solutions are deployed in the field for a device’s entire lifecycle – which can be up to 10 years in some low-complexity devices. With eSIM, there is no need to physically swap SIMs in the event of a network turndown or carrier change.

  3. Maximize ROI: With eSIM, organizations can minimize the total cost of ownership and maximize returns on IoT investments through a consolidated operational model. This is a direct change from having to manage multi-network technology across an IoT ecosystem.

  4. Carrier Agnostic: The eSIM is completely carrier agnostic, so making an MNO choice at the beginning of deployment does not have long-lasting consequences. Embedded or removable, IoT-grade and ruggedized eSIMs are remotely programmable based on GSMA eSIM specifications, with the option to integrate eSIM applets for secure authentication and network monitoring.

  5. Streamlined Logistics: Streamlining logistics and manufacturing processes is possible through eSIM. This is because the need to physically swap SIMs has been eliminated, and the eSIM is capable of hosting multiple network carriers or technologies, such as 4G and 5G.

  6. Zero-Touch Provisioning: Zero-touch provisioning is another way of saying remote provisioning or Over the Air (OTA) provisioning. This is a key function in eSIM that allows for the SIM to connect to different networks without a physical SIM swap. The ability to switch to different networks, or even network technologies, is what makes eSIM a highly attractive option for global and future-proofed IoT use cases. Not only is this beneficial to IoT solution providers, such as those leveraging IoT for business efficiency, but it is also highly useful for OEMs manufacturing IoT devices to be distributed globally.

eSIM: Now

Organizations are seeing the ROI of eSIM and skepticism about whether this technology will be widely adopted is beginning to abate. Throughout its history, use cases leveraging eSIM successfully span smart energy, drone logistics, mobile Personal Emergency Response Systems, agriculture, electric vehicle charging, and many more.

The possibilities for eSIM can be endless – with the global installed base of eSIMs estimated to be 3.4 billion by 2025. The 5G era opening up new use cases in Massive, Critical, and Ultra-Reliable IoT is an opportunity for eSIM to enable organizations access to global, perpetual connectivity.

eSIM: Future

While currently being brought to market, supporting technologies for eSIM can help make this network technology a mainstay with integral value-adds. One of those is IoT SAFE. The GSMA IoT SAFE initiative helps establish chip-to-cloud security because it begins with a SIM that is compatible with all SIM Form factors (SIM, eSIM, iSIM).

This enables security at the hardware level and helps protect IoT devices, which are often a less secure entry point into an IoT ecosystem, especially in deployments that utilize massive amounts of devices or are in hard-to-monitor areas, like bridges or underground utilities.

The SIM is used as a mini “crypto-safe” from within the device to securely establish a session with the corresponding application cloud or server. That way communications from the device to the cloud or server and back are secure.

Developments of the iSIM (integrated Subscriber Identity Module) will be the next iteration of the SIM, but not a replacement for eSIM. The eSIM is not anticipated to evolve into iSIM but simply serve as another connectivity technology choice.

A few important things to note on the iSIM – the greatest distinction will be that it is an integrated eUICC, which means chip manufacturers can design system-on-chip (SOC) infrastructure that integrates the SIM functionality.

This is not intended to be a replacement for eSIM, and it is not a soft SIM, which means software based. It will still be a hardware technology and one of the main benefits it boasts is the size and lack of space it requires in a device. As devices reduce in size, the iSIM can support that greater than other SIM form factors.

KORE, the global leader in IoT, helps simplify the complexity of IoT with streamlined, comprehensive solutions to empower organizations to deploy, manage, and scale IoT.
KORE, the global leader in IoT, helps simplify the complexity of IoT with streamlined, comprehensive solutions to empower organizations to deploy, manage, and scale IoT.