Blog Post

Carrier Organization Changes Rules to Allow the “Apple SIM”

The GSMA, the organization representing most of the world’s mobile operators, today changed its rules to allow for a programmable SIM card much like we described Apple (s aapl) building with Gemalto a few weeks back. It also set up a task force to create rules around how carriers will provision the remote-activated SIM cards with the goal of completing such rules by Jan. 2011. In a release, it said it expected devices with such remote-activated SIMs to be in devices by 2012.

A few weeks back, I reported on rumors I’d heard from European carriers that said Apple was working with Gemalto to create a SIM card  embedded in the iPhone and could be remotely activated for a carrier network via the iTunes Store or activated by Apple at the point of purchase. Such a move would cut the carriers out of the retail market, and in the past, the GSMA had rules preventing such SIM cards. So what has changed? The GSMA says in its release that :

The GSMA today announced the formation of a task force of mobile operators to explore the development of an embedded SIM that can be remotely activated. The move is expected to enable the design of exciting new form factors for mobile communications. It will also speed the development of M2M services by making it easier to bring mobile broadband to non-traditional devices such as cameras, MP3 players, navigation devices and e-Readers, as well as smart meters.

Did the carrier organization realize that an influx of connected devices requiring activation by an operator is difficult, and in the cases of things like smart meters, downright impossible? After all, what utility wants to replace the SIM cards in a few hundred thousand smart meters if it wants to change contracts with its network provider? Such amove would be theoretically possible if the GSMA allows the International Mobile Subscriber Identity number, the IMSI to be changed after the initial activation, but so far there’s no word if the GSMA is considering that. If the IMSI is changeable, it would be possible to switch 100.000 devices from one operator to another in a matter of days instead of years, at a fraction of the cost according to Rudolf van der Berg, a telephony consultant in the Netherlands.

Remotely-activated SIMs would be a huge win for connected devices outside of Apple and also eliminates a means by which the carriers locked folks into their networks. I can’t see the operators coming up with this change without pressure from their end customers. According to van der Berg the move is a “complete reversal from the GSMA’s position from the past.” For more on what such integrated and remote-activated SIMS could mean, check out our story on the topic.

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17 Responses to “Carrier Organization Changes Rules to Allow the “Apple SIM””

  1. Nobody actually reads the article — the future is about M2M wireless stuff and SIM cards have zero place in that future.

    Why would you care if you “MAY” have a slightly harder time to change a wireless carrier or “MAY” have a slightly higher monthly plan — if EVERYTHING ELSE is cheaper because of these M2M advances?

    Your electricity will be cheaper because the utility doesn’t have to hire so many workers to read the meter. Your food is going to be cheaper because your local supermarket chain will be able to afford fleet management for their trucks.

    The only explanation is that all of you are a bunch of kids living in your parents’ basements — who doesn’t pay the rent, who doesn’t pay for food and the only thing that you pay for from your pocket is your iphone.

    • Moe Lester

      Wrong answer Ms. Janet.
      Anything “wireless” is inherently a security risk. Look at RFID, Passports, etc. Even WAP2 has been defeated. SIM use may actually grow under LTE expansion next year.

      Moe “Big Hands” Lester
      Blue Glove TSA Agent
      Transportation Security Administration

  2. This policy makes me think of all the “disadvantages” to not having swappable SIMs. A lot of it affects the “low end” market. It makes your phone dependent on a computer or another phone to change numbers. Right now you can keep a phone number (SIM) and borrow a phone if you need to at any time. How will that be possible with embedded SIMs? Right now if you drop your phone in the water or if the battery dies and you have no charger you can pull out a spare phone and drop the SIM in. What will you do if you have an embedded SIM? I really hate this idea but I guess they are thinking of the rich and not the poor.

  3. Arun Kapur

    I am not sure that I would purchase a phone that removed control from me. I buy unlocked phones so that I can switch carriers when I travel. By having replaceable SIM cards I have that flexibility. I Wouk probably move away from Apple devices if they were to introduce that in the next iPhone or iPad.

  4. i do not think this will make things easier, but more difficult. at least for consumers. today if i have an AT&T iphone that i want to use t-mobile i only have to jailbreak and unlock than swap SIM cards.

    an embedded SIM will be more like CDMA. taking a DROID from verizon to metroPCS or cricket is entirely possible but a very complicated process compared to unlocked and moving GSM phones.

    there is simply no way that any type of over the air programming could be anywhere near as simple or transparent and swapping SIM cards.

    • i would to add that it is very much in the interest of consumers to have ‘plans’ separated from ‘devices’ even if against TOS it is quite easy today to put a talk & text only SIM in a smartphone and than use WIFI only for data. a lot of people are happy with that, and many would not have smartphones if high priced data plans were mandatory.

      i highly doubt companies like AT&T will support OTA activations of talk & text only plans, etc. on these phones with ’embedded SIMS’ instead of ’embedded’ it really signals the phone manufactures ‘in bed’ with the carriers to an even greater degree than they are already.

    • andrei.timoshenko

      On the contrary, I expect this to be more along the lines of “go to your new carrier website (probably while on wi-fi) -> buy credit -> it pulls your phone’s identifier -> your re-prgrammable sim is ‘switched’.” Unlocking would probably become more difficult, though…

    • It’s possible that these devices will not be locked. Many markets don’t allow phones to be tied to a carrier. When the US goes multi-carrier there really will be little reason for Apple to lock the device to any one carrier.

      GSMA would not move away from physical SIMs if there was not a way to support the same customer functions in software as we have in SIMS. They created SIMS to give he consumer flexibility – they are not going to back off that for Apple.

      The issue here, I think, is managing all of these SIM cards. Apple has to vary their product for each carrier and market to bundle the appropriate physical SIM with the device. If the the future Apple made a device that could work on several carriers, protocols and bands, they could have one phone that works on nearly any network. That device could ship as effectively one device worldwide – except for the SIMs. But if SIMs were software then the enduser, or carrier, could embed the SIM id at time of activation. And a user could also add another SIM profile for when traveling – or if the device is transferred to another carrier. That does not get you out of paying off your contract.

      • even if phone are easily transferred from one network to another there are still additional problems for consumers. today you can drop any AT&T SIM card in an AT&T phone and get talk and text service. you can not signup for any plan at Verizon; if you have a smartphone you must purchase a data plan to get service.

        regardless of the tech community liking the speed advantage when using wifi connection on smartphones, for the majority of people what wifi in a phones means(if they even know its there) i that they can use it without a data plan.

        i would really like to see statement from carriers they intend to continue allowing any ‘rate plan’ on a phone even with these OTA programmed phones.

  5. Another one of those Apple-way of looking at tech, society, communications and individual users that most corporate beancounters will never get.

    You can bet that 6 weeks after this technology is actually introduced to the marketplace, HP and Microsoft will hold a press conference showing their Apple-SIM-killer. Which will be out real soon now.

  6. Expect a nightmare at Carrier side for managing (and supporting) all these activations, provisioning, and following up the status of each device.
    Fortunately, Gemalto and the like are also providing OTA provisioning servers for carriers. This seems to be a double (device manufacturer/carrier) opportunity for them (if OTA or similar for SIM swapping is allowed by GSMA).

  7. Cracks me up how carriers adamantly scream that they refuse to be dumb pipes, but…

    If it means massive data revenues via Apple, they quietly agree, relinquish all control for ultra short term revenue.

    Fine with me, those fiscal quarter profit will come back and bite them – they’re on the road to being total dumb pipes, as a result of their own actions. Good riddance.

    • There might be more margin in mobile broadband than voice or service offers.

      The carrier won’t be able to compete with Apple, Google, Microsoft or Skype cloud offers anyway.

      In the past they made tons of money by selling voice minutes, in the future they will make tons of money by selling data.