The world is about to get smarter, thanks to 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), and one lesser-known technology: integrated SIM (iSIM).
It’s already clear that 5G will offer cellular IoT networks exponential improvements overcurrent 4G capabilities – paving the way for new, low-latency IoT applications like autonomous vehicles that can react to hazards and communicate that reaction to other connected vehicles within a few milliseconds.
But what’s lesser known is that the next evolution – or more accurately the “revolution” – of the humble SIM card, called iSIM, opens up a range of excitingly fresh opportunities together with 5G and IoT for CSPs. When these three next-generation technologies collide, they allow CSPs to enter new markets and tap into cutting-edge IoT use cases across public and private networks.
It’s important, though, that not every IoT application needs massive bandwidth and ultra-low latency. For many, connection density and low power consumption are the key requirements. Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) allows large-scale IoT deployments over a wide coverage area, whether those devices are deployed across a farm, a factory floor, an energy grid or rail network.
Addressing cellular IoT’s need for a new approach to SIM
While 5G helps enable massive-scale IoT, it is a complex task to securely connect billions of devices to the cellular network – some of which may be no bigger than a fingertip.
This is where iSIM comes in. In the smartphone world, the familiar removable SIM card enables the phone to identify and authenticate itself to the cellular network and for the network provider to monitor, meter and charge for its usage.
But removable SIMs are impractical at best in an IoT scenario. For one thing, even the smallest removable SIMs use up a relatively large amount of space and power – making them unworkable for tiny, long-life sensors.
Then there’s the fact that the SIM can only connect to one network and its roaming partners. For devices like self-driving trucks, which need to stay reliably connected while travelling long distances, that creates problems around network handovers and potential coverage gaps. Additionally, removable SIMs also require manual installation and provisioning by the user – an impossible task for deployments of hundreds of thousands or millions of devices.
eSIM and iSIM will unlock the full potential of 5G-powered IoT
In short, while SIM is essential for cellular IoT at scale, the removable SIM card is not the answer. Instead, two new evolutions, iSIM and eSIM, will make SIM technology workable for the hyperconnected world.
The first of these, eSIM, has already been around for a few years. Rather than a removable smartcard, it’s a chip that ships with the device and can be provisioned over the air by whichever connectivity provider the user chooses. BMW, for example, is using eSIM today in its iX electric car – allowing the vehicle to become a secondary device on the user’s mobile network with the ability to act as a wireless local area network (WLAN) hotspot for up to 10 devices.
iSIM will be the first SIM that’s fully geared to the needs of enterprise IoT
But while eSIM’s low maintenance and over-the-air provisioning make it great for larger devices, it still uses too much space and power to make it viable for small, low-power sensors. Its separate chip also racks up manufacturing and assembly costs – making eSIM prohibitive for massive-scale IoT deployments. A more optimized, secure and flexible solution is needed that drives faster and broader IoT expansion.
Unlike eSIM, iSIM is embedded in a dedicated enclave on the device’s main processor. That not only gives it an ultra-low-footprint in terms of space, power, cost and waste, but also a self-contained structure that makes it highly resistant to spoofing.
A new GSMA initiative, IoT SAFE, increases the security of subscriber identity still further – paving the way for iSIM to act as the Root-of-Trust for identification and authentication, thus enabling devices to become digital identifiers in fully automated machine-to-machine communications. In the case of smart cars, for example, iSIM can facilitate touchless device-to-device authentication and allow control of what data is shared and accessed, when and by whom.
Like eSIM, iSIM is shipped with the device and provisioned remotely, making it a highly attractive option for global companies that use connected devices in their operations. They can ship the same unit to anywhere in the world, ready to be programmed over the air by their chosen connectivity provider – facilitating the rapid proliferation of massive-scale cellular IoT.
The collision of 5G, iSIM and IoT presents a wealth of opportunities for CSPs
iSIM brings exciting opportunities for CSPs keen to expand into the world of enterprise IoT. Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit will be the huge range of sensors and devices that can be sold, along with connectivity, at a fraction of the unit cost of today’s physical SIMs.
More value-added ways to monetize iSIM and 5G for enterprise IoT could include remote provisioning of thousands or millions of IoT devices, offered as a service via application programming interfaces(APIs) – think “network as code” – integrated into the enterprise customer’s own workflows.
Whether narrowband or wideband, the reliability of the 5G network will be critical for many IoT use cases. For a self-driving vehicle or connected medical device, network congestion or degradation could pose unacceptable safety risks. The solution in many cases will be network slicing: a way of partitioning 5G networks to give applications or organizations their own dedicated ‘slice’ of the network.
Enterprise customers who lack cellular expertise are also likely to look to CSPs to help build and manage their IoT networks. The ability to create and operate dedicated slices of the public 5G network will be a game-changer here – and CSPs that can effectively combine 5G slicing and iSIM for enterprise IoT will be well placed to succeed.