Guest Post: The Future of the SIM Card – are eSIMS the End of the Road?

November 6, 2023

Written by 6GWorld Contributor
CATEGORY: Exclusives

By Neve Wilkinson, Solvid

There are an estimated 16.8 billion mobile devices worldwide in 2023, and many will be accompanied by a physical subscriber identity module (SIM) card, a digital eSIM, or, in modern times, both.

A SIM card identifies those subscribed and connected to cellular networks such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. An eSIM is a recent development in the communications field which does the same as the silicon-integrated chip but is instead embedded into your phone’s hardware, unlike a SIM card that can be inserted and removed via a card tray.

Thanks to Wi-Fi, you don’t need to be connected to a cellular network to use most apps and services on your device – and you can even set up a virtual mobile number to make and receive calls and texts without a SIM. However, in today’s digital world, most smartphone, tablet and smartwatch users take advantage of being connected to 3G, 4G or 5G wherever they are.

 

How SIM cards have evolved over time

The first SIM card was developed in 1991 by German company Giesecke+Devrient, who sold the first 300 cards to Finnish wireless network operator Radiolinja.

It was about the size of a credit card and had enough storage to hold the phone user’s contact list and messages, which could be carried over to whatever device their SIM was installed in – something we now mainly rely on the cloud for.

With time, the size of SIM cards became smaller, and their capabilities became greater. The mini SIM was launched in 1996 but replaced by the even smaller micro SIM in 2010, which Apple’s iPhone 4 became the first device to support.

Then came the nano SIM in 2012. This remains the smallest removable SIM card and is still commonly used in phones today. However, in 2017, the eSIM was presented as the first fully digital chip at the International Mobile and Communications Exhibition (MWC).

Jeff Fieldhack, research director for global technology market research firm Counterpoint Research, said: “I think it was a natural evolution. It’s easier for the smart smartphone makers, because the physical sim tray takes up a lot of space. And they can simply solder it right to the board. So it’s actually more efficient, less power hungry.”

Just as fewer phones each year have a headphone jack, your option for using a physical SIM card will also eventually become limited.

(Image Source: Moflix)

 

Are eSIMs the end of the road?

Most smartphones released after 2020 have a physical SIM card tray and an internal eSIM, offering dual-SIM capabilities such as allowing users to keep separate contact lists on each SIM and allowing access to foreign networks while keeping the existing local card.

However, in 2022, Apple launched the US version of the iPhone 14 without a SIM card tray, which began their mass deployment of eSIM-only phones. Other smartphone makers will likely follow suit with predictions that the eSIM market will grow in value by $11.6 billion in the next five years.

As for other devices, the cellular versions of the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch, and Huawei Watch are among those that use eSIM. There is also eSIM support in Windows 10 and 11, so always-connected laptops may become more common.

 

Pros of an eSIM

  • An eSIM is updated and activated digitally, allowing you to change carriers and connect to mobile networks without handling a physical SIM card.
  • You can temporarily switch to another network without ordering a new SIM card. This is an excellent feature for those who travel.
  • You can install multiple eSIMs on one device simultaneously.
  • eSIMs don’t take up the same amount of physical space as a SIM card in a device’s motherboard. This allows extra room for other components.
  • eSIMs are better for the environment as there are no plastic cards or shipping materials, which means less waste.
  • You aren’t able to lose or misplace an eSIM – unless you lose or misplace your phone, of course!

 

Cons of an eSIM

  • eSIMs are less efficient when switching phones as you can’t simply remove the SIM card from one device and put it into another. However, the process is still very fast.
  • Someone with connection problems may put their SIM card into a different phone to check if the problem is with their network or device. However, you can’t do this with an eSIM.
  • Only unlocked phones are compatible with eSIMs, eliminating those tied to a specific mobile network that can only use data plans from that network.
  • Not all networks or countries support eSIMs yet.

As both customers and technology companies begin to recognize the benefits, the mass adoption of eSIMs will inevitably follow. However, we will also likely see different kinds of SIMs being employed in the future.

 

Introducing the iSIM

It is time to examine the next generation of connectivity – integrated SIMs (iSIM). The critical difference is that the iSIM is almost not a SIM card at all, as the functionality of the traditional SIM is embedded directly into the device’s central processing unit (CPU).

 

Pros of an iSIM

  • An iSIM uses around 70% less power than a SIM or eSIM, meaning the phone’s battery could last longer.
  • The iSIM can be 98% smaller than an eSIM because it is part of the device’s CPU.
  • The simplified designs and need for fewer components mean iSIMs cost half as much to build.
  • Like eSIMs, iSIMs offer the ability to swap to different networks and connectivity providers, which is valuable for IoT device manufacturers.

Since an iSIM is fully integrated into its device, developing it is more complex and time-consuming, so manufacturers may prefer the eSIM for quicker time-to-market.

Whether iSIMs will completely replace the eSIM is still up for debate, but it is unlikely to be the end of the road for the eSIM just yet with the market expected to be worth $16.3 billion by 2027.

To conclude, the continued development of SIM technology is falling into place alongside many other connective technologies such as 5G, 6G, private networks, and satellite connectivity.

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