May 27, 2024

The Fast Mode, Expert Opinion

The Future is eSIM: Preparing for the Wireless Authentication Revolution

Phone with eSIM technology concept. Hand holding the mobile device

(This article was published in The Fast Mode in their Expert Opinion section by Chris Jahr.)

The way we connect our devices to wireless networks is on the cusp of a major transformation.

While physical SIM cards have been the standard since the technology was first launched in Finland back in 1991, the industry is now rapidly pivoting to embrace eSIM technology. This digital evolution promises to unlock a new era of connectivity, though it is not without challenges for the traditional players in the SIM vendor space.

The momentum behind eSIM adoption is undeniable and accelerating. Apple’s decision to use eSIM technology exclusively in the iPhone 14 starting in 2022 was a major catalyst, putting the industry on notice. But the impact extends far beyond consumer smartphones. In the next 3-4 years, we expect eSIM to become the default not only in nearly all mobile devices, but also in a wide range of IoT applications.

The technology is poised to transform sectors like utilities, logistics, and the military, with use cases such as, smart meters, asset tracking and seamless access to critical information in theaters of operation, all benefiting from the advantages of eSIM. Travel SIMs and private networks, which have historically relied on physical SIMs as a secondary option, are also prime candidates for eSIM disruption. The fully digital eSIM model enables faster time-to-market, lower overall costs, and greater flexibility compared to dealing with the manufacturing, packaging, and logistics associated with physical SIM cards.

However, this pivot from physical to digital is creating pressures and mind-shift challenges for the incumbent SIM vendors. The traditional SIM card market has reached maturity, with flattening growth and declining profitability driven by decreasing unit volumes and eroding sales prices – a dual threat to the bottom line. At the same time, while eSIM use cases are proliferating, the industry is facing a critical shortage of eSIM expertise. Estimates suggest there are only 1500-2000 eSIM experts globally, with just 100-150 in North America.

This scarcity of talent is being exacerbated by rising attrition rates, as experts depart the traditional vendors for opportunities at companies like Apple, Google, and major carriers – the very players who are leading the charge on eSIM adoption. The oligopolistic structure of the SIM vendor market, with four players, all foreign-based, controlling 80%-85% share, is also under threat as Chinese vendors successfully march west and make inroads in cost-sensitive segments.

OEMs are voting with their product designs. In the next five years, the expectation is that 90% of new smartphones will stop using the SIM card slot entirely. The rationale is multifaceted: reclaiming precious printed circuit board real estate, improving environmental resiliency, reducing warranty claims by eliminating the SIM tray, or utilizing the freed-up space for new components like AI chips. But it’s clear that the days of the physical SIM are numbered.

As eSIM goes mainstream, a key barrier that needs to fall is the walled garden model of the incumbent SIM vendors. Currently, enabling eSIM functionality requires navigating an intensive and often manual process of working with these players to get each eSIM module profiled. Liberating carriers from these restrictions is essential to realizing the full promise of eSIM, enabling innovations such as streamlined customer onboarding flows and dynamic subscription management.

But nowhere have the walled gardens of the incumbent SIM industry presented a greater level of frustration than in the private network space. Private 5G has been touted for its many benefits over Wi-Fi, including higher data speeds, lower latency, better signal propagation/range and greater security, yet private 5G networks rely on the same eSIM technology to authenticate to its network core as traditional wireless carriers, but the private network operators are profoundly underserved, largely due to their incrementally small ordering volumes. Creating eSIMs should take minutes, not months.

One new opportunity that eSIM technology affords is the ability to repatriate this critical credential back to the country in which it’s used. Wireless carriers have long accepted that foreign SIM suppliers have been producing the SIM cards in low-cost countries like China, Taiwan, India, and Brazil. But, with the digitization of the SIM, it is now possible for carriers and private network operators alike to have full eSIM lifecycle ownership – from eSIM design to development to download – all within the confines of their own national borders, ensuring that full custody and control is maintained. And as data breaches from rogue nations become more pervasive, eSIM technology now gives carriers the ability to re-credential their entire subscriber base without the need to order and distribute thousands to tens of millions of SIM cards.

So, the stars have aligned for eSIM to redefine the connectivity landscape. Sunsetting the physical SIM card in favor of this digital technology will create opportunities for reimagined devices, seamless user experiences, and optimized economics. But it also demands navigating major challenges – technical, commercial, and cultural.

The players that can adapt and lead in this new era of eSIM will be well positioned to unlock value, while those clinging to the legacy physical model risk obsolescence. Now is the time for carriers, device makers, and enterprises to fully embrace the future of eSIM.

Chris Jahr

As co-founder of RiPSIM, Chris has more than 30 years of telecom and SIM sales, marketing, and business development experience. Before starting RiPSIM, he spent over 20 years as a senior executive with global SIM vendor Giesecke+Devrient. Previously, Chris provided product management and business development for carriers and MVNOs.