24 Comments

Summary:

A SIM card that could be programmed on the fly to register to any network could revolutionize the internet of things and allow device makers to become carriers. But it’s still illegal in nearly every country.

SIM card
photo: Shutterstock / Albert Lozano

Regulators in Netherlands this week opened the door for any company — whether Apple, Audi or your local electric utility — to issue its own SIM cards configured to no particular carrier. This is just one country changing its rules, but if other countries follow suit, it could have big implications for the internet of things and even change the way we buy mobile service.

A few years ago in a Gigaom post, European economist and policy analyst Rudolf van der Berg explained how such a setup could work for Apple if it chose to shed the carrier yoke and sell connectivity directly to its iPhone customers. Basically Apple would provide SIM cards to all of its customers, and then remotely assign them different carrier networks as customers activated their service.

SIM cards galore

Source: Flickr / mroach

Apple could buy data and voice services in bulk from hundreds of different carriers around the world and then pick which network would be most appropriate for each of its customers at any given time. So if an iPhone user left his home country for a vacation in France, for instance, he wouldn’t get charged the usual high roaming rates. Instead Apple would just reassign his SIM card to one of the French networks. Instead of being a guest roaming onto a French carrier’s networks, he’d be at “home” anywhere in the world.

Whether an Apple or a Samsung has any interest in becoming a carrier to its customers remains to be seen — back in 2010, Gigaom reported that Apple was working on such a soft-SIM, though nothing seemed to come of it — but it could be of enormous use in the machine-to-machine (M2M) communications world, van der Berg told me in an email exchange this week.

Take a car company like GM, which is putting LTE connectivity into all of its cars. In the U.S., GM is locked down to a single operator. It doesn’t matter if you buy your smartphone plan from Verizon or T-Mobile; if you want to connect your Chevy to an LTE network, you have one choice: AT&T.

With a carrier agnostic-SIM, a carmaker could attach your car to whatever carrier to you happen to have relationship with and change your connection whenever you switched carriers. Or it could run a managed service with multiple carriers, connecting to whomever’s network had the best capacity or coverage wherever you happened to be driving, said van der Berg, who is now with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Source: Gigaom

Source: Gigaom

While some carriers might be opposed to that concept, the mobile industry overall would benefit, van Berg said. In the internet of things, there is a lot of resistance to connecting gadgets and appliances to the cellular network because doing so would require device makers to lock into a carrier. But a programmable SIM card would alleviate that burden, making cellular connectivity much more attractive, van der Berg said.

Of course, we’re still a long way from this kind of carrier-agnostic networking become a reality. The Netherlands has eased its rules, and the GSM Association is behind the concept, but the network-less SIM is still illegal in almost every country in the world, van der Berg said.

And even with legal barriers lifted in Holland, there are technical limitations that need to be overcome, van Berg said. Still, getting Dutch regulators on board was a big victory, setting an example that van der Berg hopes other governments will follow.

Correction: This post previously stated that a network-agnostic SIM is also legal in the U.S. and Germany. That’s the not the case. It is allowed only in the Netherlands.

  1. Micha Benoliel Saturday, March 15, 2014

    Finally a regulator that understands how to unleash mobile connectivity. In addition this will boost innovation and open the road to additional and new revenue models.

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  2. Monopolistic oligarchs wouldn’t allow it.

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    1. Sander Takens Friday, April 25, 2014

      Well, let the games begin for a new start up /

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  3. Chandana Kulatunga Saturday, March 15, 2014

    the network-less SIM is still illegal in almost every country in the world

    This is because the goverments loose the way to track the user just in case. For better alternative is provide National ID number during the phone activation so the phone can pick up the packages we pre owned from the list and we pick the one we want

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    1. Rudolf van der Berg Sunday, March 16, 2014

      Given reactions on many fora, I thought it might be appreciated if I share a presentation on this topic. http://www.slideshare.net/Raindeer/oecd-work-on-internet-of-things-and-m2m-sim-cards

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    2. Network-less SIM is legal and exist since many many years. Its called Mobile Virtual Network Operator.

      There are two flavours of it. One is having no infrastructure and is purely a marketing thing. The SIM’s are still from the donor network it has an agreement with. So this is more like a branding / marketing thing than anything else.

      The second variant is having its own core infrastructure, own mobile network code, own HLR/MSC etc etc. And it has its own SIM cards and IMSI ranges. Technically speaking, tthe network is simply a network without the cell towers and the SIM cards are always roaming on some other network of choice. From a end user perspective, always being in roaming of course is considered “expensive” but this is just a question of the agreements between the MVNO and the visiting network and the pricing.

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  4. my concern is that these SIMs would be embedded into the device. this actually gives the end user less flexibility tan a removable SIM which already allows for pretty easy carrier swapping with an unlocked phone. also the fact that is a physical SIM makes it very clear to the user what network they are utilizing.

    i am against anything that takes control away from the customer and puts into the hand of the corporations whether carrier or phone manufacture.

    also there are already MVNOs with their own SIM cards that roam between multiple carriers, especially in Europe.

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    1. Rudolf van der Berg Sunday, March 16, 2014

      Frank, you misunderstand. These are for car companies, smart metres, ereaders, navigation, insurance monitors, where the customer manages 10k or even millions of devices. This is not for consumers

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      1. Yeah,w as thinking the same thing. Probably, more like Holland, Michigan to all Americans — yes I’m looking at you in Santiago de Chile… ;-[

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  5. мàймýн Monday, March 17, 2014

    So this is only for Holland, right? What about the rest of the Netherlands? #pedant

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    1. Sander Takens Friday, April 25, 2014

      Just FYI Holland = the Netherlands :)

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  6. 1. How would IMSI Swap possible over the air and ofcourse without operator intervention
    2. Additionally regulator needs to be maintain open pool IMSI database in order to carry this transaction and moreover operator real time connectivity to provisioning systems/CRM needs to be managed in order to provision and de-provision the sim from respective network

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    1. IMSI swap very much happens ota with the same sim card, but with the operators support.. Unless it can be done over USSD. In this case the IMSI would migrate from the operator VLR (visiting) to the HLR (home) as the AUC would already have been registered on the home MSC (switch).

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  7. Eli Lederwerg Monday, March 17, 2014

    I think it is excellent. And the way forward for the Internet of things and M2M.
    Any company that is interested, we can make their SIM cards to their own specifications. Contact me :)

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  8. Abhay Ghatpande Wednesday, March 19, 2014

    Aren’t multi-IMSI SIM cards already available for M2M?

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    1. Bettina Rubek Slater Tuesday, March 25, 2014

      Yes they are. We have been shipping them for well over 6 months now to customers in more than 96 locations. see more at http://www.eseye.com

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  9. Abhay Ghatpande Wednesday, March 19, 2014

    Just want to understand the difference between this and for example this: http://www.podsystemm2m.com/m2m-network-services/global-multi-imsi-m2m-solution

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    1. Rudolf van der Berg Wednesday, March 19, 2014

      Abhay, multi IMSI is a technical hack to fix a regulatory problem. Multi-IMSI and eUICC or a combination of both, put an operator in charge, not the 1 million device company. Somebody, not the company that actually has bought 1 million SIM-cards, determines whose IMSI is on the multi-IMSI SIM or gets send over the air to the eUICC. That is not what I envision, that is absolutely not what the 1 million device user wants. These companies want to be able to decide themselves, whether they use one, two or three mobile networks in a country. The 1 million device companies also want to determine if they can roam on Wifi using EAP-SIM or not. If the 1 million device company is not in charge, this is determined by others, whose businessmodel has different requirements.

      What the Netherlands proposed is therefore that an energy company can obtain a single IMSI range and manage it in a way it sees fit. In a way that allows it to use Wifi, Dect-guardband and GSM/LTE as it sees fit.

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  10. Michel Zwijnenberg Sunday, March 23, 2014

    We are a Dutch based M2M MVNE and were involved in answering the question how to achieve M2M SIM-card portability.

    We are happy to discuss with any company considering to register for their own MNC.

    Taken into account the EU law on roaming per 1-7-2014, a M2M SIM registered in only one EU country is sufficient to cover the whole of the EU.

    Michel Zwijnenberg (ASPIDERM2M)

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