The Financial Times recently brought us a story about the two technology giants, Apple and Samsung collaborating over a new form of SIM card. The two companies have apparently agreed to work together on designing and developing a new common architecture standard for an electronic SIM (Subscriber Identity Module). This new generation of SIM would replace its physical / plastic older brother.
The new concept in the tech giant’s eyes would allow us, the users to easily switch between network carriers without having to switch SIM cards. The Financial Times stated it would, “fundamentally change how consumers sign up to mobile operators.” Although the transition seems like a smart way to move forward technologically, is the change necessarily a good thing for the consumers pockets overall? Are mobile plan prices likely go up as the power shifts from network providers to phone-makers?
If you have seen the story on the news about the new eSIM card and thought it’s a great idea you are not alone. Yet, there are some conflicting opinions within the market place concerning its affects on the market once it gets rolled out. The benefits of the new system would allow us to switch between network providers much more easily. It would also mean that our mobile phones would be sold unlocked making it easier to change between providers at any time, either home or abroad. If we were to let our imagination run completely wild we could even consider the idea of eliminating roaming charges, because anyone with a new eSIM would be able to access local networks when abroad and receive local rates. A topic I've delved into a few times recently.
Whilst the opportunities sound intriguing, The Economist doesn’t sound particularly excited about the change as they explained in their comment on the topic:
“Operators would lose control of the market, but Apple and other device-makers might gain from it. They would, if regulators let them, be able to choose which operators appeared on the menu when buyers of their phones and tablets were setting them up. The risk: the SIM cards demise leads to less choice and higher prices for users.”
Ultimately the standards and guidelines on which the new SIM are established will have to be approved by the GSM Association. This association represents hundreds of telecoms companies across the globe and as times change, the telecoms companies will be relying ever more on the GSM to maintain a certain level of control. The GSM are very important in this process because they were the organisation who decided which radio frequency spectrum the mobile platform would sit on, and how devices would identify themselves (via SIM cards).
The SIM card is a mobile device's unique identification within a network and besides broadcasting your number, the SIM also sends a variety of encryption keys which with todays technology is a trivial security system. This was proven in 2013 when mobile phone hacking by government officials was occurring for average Joes across the planet.
Earlier this year we also learned that a group of NSA and GCHQ spies had actually hacked the system of the world's largest SIM maker, Gemalto to give them access to encryption keys of the company’s billions of SIM cards. This made it even easier to decrypt mobile communications to the extent that the NSA has even patented a new technology that can detect when someone takes the SIM out of the phone and the replaces it (in hopes of disconnecting anyone listening in).
The new eSIM being software based could potentially allow for more secure encryption protocols, but we won't know any more about security until the GSM announces the new protocol structure. The Financial Times have mentioned that we could witness the launch of the new eSIM as early as 2016.
At this stage, the reservations we at Buckscoop have are centred primarily around the customer’s ability to change carriers at the drop of a hat in order to keep mobile plan costs low. This level of changeability within the market creates competitive pricing amongst carriers and allows the customer to have a series of SIM cards to receive favourable rates no matter what their activity is. But, if everything is loaded within the phone and you have to download new carrier SIMs, this instantly gives much more power to the mobile phone manufacturers. Plus this also creates a more desirable item to thieves. If your phone gets stolen you no longer just lose the phone, you also lose all the credit on the downloaded eSIMs which is saved on the devices hard drive. Thus bolt-on software or app-based solutions will need to be made available to protect customers from these scenarios. Current anti-theft functionality found in most antivirus products these days are a starting point, but it's not certain at this stage whether these will suffice.
If the plans go ahead for 2016 then we could be seeing the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 launched with the new platform. We will update you as this story develops regarding launch dates, pricing and network providers who will be getting involved from day one.