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Is eSIM new telecoms revolution?

By Adeyemi Adepetun
26 November 2020   |   3:03 am
Removable subscriber identification module (SIM) cards are an integral part of modern mobile communications. Due to technological advancements, these small plastic cards, will over time

NCC Executive Vice-Chairman, Prof. Umar Danbatta PHOTO: Twitter

Adeyemi Adepetun writes that although it is a regulatory intervention, innovation behind the electronic subscriber identification module (eSIMs) is expected to simplify telephony services.

Removable subscriber identification module (SIM) cards are an integral part of modern mobile communications. Due to technological advancements, these small plastic cards, will over time, be replaced by embedded counterparts.

It is interesting to note that the humble SIM card has survived for quite a while, but it now finally looks like it’s on its way out. Why? The electronic version (eSIM), a much smarter technology, is here to save the day.

While removable SIM cards will continue to be the prevalent way of enabling mobile communication in markets in the short-to-medium term, the eSIM technology, facilitated by the standardisation and specification work done by the GSM Association (GSMA) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), is expected to become widespread over time due to its inherent benefits.

Basically, a SIM contains the information that authenticates a subscriber’s identity to a carrier. That is, the SIM card is what tells a carrier that a customer is who he or she is — and without it, carriers wouldn’t know that customers are subscribed to their network, and thus, wouldn’t let them use their cell towers.

Understanding the technology behind eSIM
THE eSIM, launched globally in 2016, is the next generation of SIM cards after the Nano SIMs launched in 2012. An eSIM is exactly what it sounds like: An electronic, or embedded, SIM. Instead of a physical card, SIM technology is built right into a customer’s phone. It’s a small chip that’s used to authenticate a customer’s identity with his carrier. Already new phones like the Pixel 4, iPhone 11 Pro, and Motorola Razr boast of eSIM support.

Of course, customers probably have some questions about that. When travelling with a traditional SIM card, he may have to swap to another carrier’s SIM card to keep his coverage. If a customer wants to change carriers at home, he’ll also have to physically replace the SIM card. With that in mind, does a built-in SIM mean a customer have to switch phones? Thankfully, no. In fact, one of the advantages of eSIM technology is that it makes it much easier to switch carriers. Instead of having to order a new SIM and wait around for it to arrive, a customer can switch to a new carrier straight from his or her phone. If he is a dual-SIM user, eSIM technology supports multiple accounts — and switching between them is easy.

With an eSIM, a subscriber phone has a few new settings devoted to his SIM card that allow him to switch between lines, carriers and manage accounts. The Google Pixel 2, for instance, was among the first phones to support eSIM technology, and an app for managing eSIM is available from the Google Play Store. Then, the iPhone XS came out, and it offered both a physical SIM card and an eSIM as a secondary, though the eSIM was only enabled later down the line through an iOS software update.

Report showed that the eSIM market is expected to grow rapidly, from an estimated $253.8 million in 2018 to nearly $980 million by 2023. Eventually, eSIMs will take over physical SIMs.

Several reports in 2019, predicted that eSIMs were going to be a game-changer for customers and such predictions were right it seems, especially in a country like Nigeria, where the telecoms regulator is already taking concrete action through the approval of a trial between two telecoms operators.

Advantages and disadvantages
THERE are many advantages of eSIM, not least with regards to switching phone networks. For example, if you are switching from one network to another, you don’t have to go out to a shop to get a new SIM card or wait for one to arrive in the post – you can switch there and then.

Perhaps you’re thinking of switching to more than one network – that’s easy too. Because an eSIM lets users store more than one network in it, and are able to switch quickly between them. This could come in handy if there is no signal, in an area that the network doesn’t cover. If this happens, the subscriber is stuck. But in the near future, he or she could simply switch to the network that offers the best coverage.

eSIM takes up less room on a phone than a SIM card and its tray. It could be good news for travellers, too, as you can switch to the local network/tariff wherever you are – therefore avoiding roaming charges.

On the other hand, checks by The Guardian showed that the pros outweigh the cons, but there are a couple of potential flaws. With a physical SIM, if your phone breaks down you can transfer the SIM and have all your details on another phone – this may not be possible with an eSIM. You may not be able to transfer data from one phone to another, except for information stored in the cloud-like contacts, messages, and more.

eSIM as regulatory intervention

THE need for regulators to keep pushing for the adoption of the newest technologies is based on the impending next-generation network of technologies around 5G, the internet of things (IoT), Big Data, among others.

With the benefit of foresight, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), under the leadership of the Executive Vice Chairman, Prof. Umar Danbatta, recently carried out a trial of 5G to pave the way for a greater digital ecosystem in Nigeria.

It granted approval for two mobile network operators (MNOs), MTN Nigeria and 9Mobile, to carry out a trial on the workability of embedded Subscriber Identification Modules (e-SIM) Service in Nigeria.

The trial, approved to run for a period of one year, will involve testing 5,000 eSIMs by the two networks, subject to compliance with a number of regulatory conditions.

These conditions include full compliance by the MNOs with the Registration of Telecoms Subscribers Regulations 2011; the Mobile Number Portability Regulations and Business Rules 2015; Guidelines on SIM Replacement 2017; and non-degradation of the Quality of Service (QoS) experienced by users of e-SIMs.

In a statement issued by the Commission, Danbatta said the primary objective of the e-SIM trial is to assess the technical performance of the e-SIM on telecoms service providers’ network towards eventual rollout, if satisfactory. The e-SIM makes it easier for subscribers to choose a pre-paid plan provider and switch between network operators.

The information on the eSIM is rewritable by operators and the identification information can be updated over time.

According to the EVC, the eSIM is a technology that will eliminate the need for physical SIM card slots on mobile devices in the near future. He added that the trial was in line with the Commission’s regulatory approach to ensure Nigeria’s telecoms ecosystem is in tandem with global best practice

MTN leads the pack for eSIM trial
MTN Nigeria is one of the companies granted trialling approval by the NCC to try eSIM in the country.     

During the commencement of eSIM trial by MTN Nigeria, the firm’s Chief Transformation Officer, Bayo Adekanmbi, said an eSIM is a standardised SIM chip open to multiple mobile operators globally.

Adekanmbi explained that “if you have an eSIM you don’t have to replace one SIM card with another when switching network carriers. Since the eSIM can be programmed remotely, it allows you to choose another carrier by just messaging the old and new provider.”

Speaking on the simplicity of the technology, he said for starters, the eSIM is eco-friendly. “Previous SIM cards were generally made with some plastic, which was of no use. Ideally, what makes the SIM card work is the chip and not the plastic. Customers embracing the eSIM would be reducing the use of plastic and thereby reducing the user’s carbon footprint, which is good for the environment.”

“Travellers, tourists, or consumers relocating to other countries can easily switch operators from country to country without the need of getting a new device, another SIM card, or roaming their lines. Local customers also have the advantage of switching from one mobile carrier to another for reasons like a better deal or better network coverage in an area. This means less time speaking with carriers, and ordering and waiting for a new SIM; all of which can be done from your phone settings via the eSIM software,” he stated.

Adekanmbi said the eSIM offers much more flexibility to the consumer than currently used SIM cards do. With eSIMs, it is possible to have two plans from two different carriers. This means you can use one number for business and another number for personal calls; add a local data plan when you travel outside of the country or region; and have a separate voice, text, and data plans.

He equally assured that “With the introduction of the e-SIM, we will offer customers a SIMless, seamless and distinctive digital experience with new levels of flexibility, simplicity, and convenience. This is a further demonstration of our firm commitment to delivering the benefits of a bold new digital world to our customers.”

eSIM in other countries
In 2019, eSIM technology was launched in Sierra Leone through Africell. Andreas Fink, whose Ethereum-based company, Cajutel, secured a license to build an Internet company to bring high-speed Wi-Fi to Sierra Leone, said not much may change for normal end-users with the introduction of e-SIMs.

He, however, added that it is vital for IoT, which may still take time to play a meaningful role in Sierra Leone’s mobile market with approximately 5.8 million users.

Industry experts have observed that slowly but surely, it looks like eSIMs will take over because they provide a new level of convenience and accessibility for everyone. As long as a carrier supports the eSIMs and a customer’s phone supports them, then that may be all a customer needs to start using the new technology today. To help bridge the gap, some phones with eSIMs still have traditional SIM card slots, but it’s a good bet that eventually, those trays could go away altogether.

Whether a customer is travelling, switching carriers, or upgrading his phone, an eSIM sounds much easier to manage than any of the alternatives. Fortunately, technology is spreading faster than consumers can keep up, and soon it’ll be everywhere.