Service providers’ next battleground isn’t 5G – it’s eSIMs

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You’ve heard the news – 5G is coming! And if you believe everything you hear, 5G will be the next battleground for service providers. However, in my opinion, it isn’t.

While the 5G hype is in overdrive, there’s a more interesting battle that you hear less about, but that doesn’t make it less important. For me, the next battleground for service providers is embedded SIMS, or eSIMs. And while most service providers are trying to figure out how eSIMs will impact their business, service providers like Tata Communications and Vodafone are racing ahead.

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited by the opportunities that 5G will create, but I’m a pragmatist. It will take years to rollout 5G networks and identify the use cases that will allow the service providers to monetise them. 

The eSIM opportunities are here today – and we are talking about hundreds of millions of new connections and billions of dollars of revenue, with the market is expected to grow at a CAGR of between 25% and 40% in the coming years, depending on which analyst firm you believe.

And let’s face it, service providers could use those revenues to help fund their 5G investments. Before I digress further, let’s get back to basics – what are eSIMs and why do they matter?

The basics

The traditional SIM card model has been around for decades. New smartphones purchased from a service provider come with their SIM card installed. Traditional SIMs only connect to the service providers that issued them, and they like that because it locks in the customer relationship and drives revenues.

When you are at home, that’s not a big deal, but when you travel, it is because of data roaming. Let’s say I’m travelling to Japan – upon arrival, I could buy a local SIM and replace my Singapore SIM (assuming my phone doesn’t have a second SIM slot) to save money on data roaming. But then I couldn’t receive calls on my Singapore number – and let’s face it – replacing a SIM is a hassle. So, I don’t bother, and I reluctantly accept the high roaming fees for voice and data.

eSIMs disrupt that model. eSIMs are built into a device, and while a traditional SIM can only connect to the service provider that issued it, eSIMs can connect to multiple service providers. This allows me to buy a short-term data plan from a Japanese provider via my phone’s browser and saves me from incurring high data roaming fees. Then, when I travel to Australia, I use the same eSIM to purchase data from a local provider there. Just think, no more SIM-swapping or painful visits to the mobile phone shop.

Big vendors get it

Big vendors have taken notice of the disruptive nature of this technology. In early 2018, Microsoft and Qualcomm launched the “Always Connected PC” platform, which encouraged manufacturers (e.g. Acer, Asus, Lenovo, HP) to launch their latest Windows 10 laptops with eSIM functionality. Consumers could just go online and purchase data connectivity.

Later in 2018, Apple announced that its latest iPhone’s would come with an eSIM as a second SIM on the device.

This “should” be great news for consumers, but this model requires eSIM support from the providers, and so far they have been reluctant to do so. Providers don’t like the eSIM model because it makes it easier for consumers to switch providers, leading to higher churn and decreased roaming revenues.

Not only have these concerns led to the slow support of eSIMs, but also for some providers to actively try to block them. Things got so bad that in April 2018, the U.S. Justice Department started an anti-trust investigation against Verizon, AT&T and the GSMA for allegedly trying to establish standards that would allow them to lock a device to their network even if it had eSIM technology.

Service providers finally have started to support eSIMs, but from the consumer perspective, it will be some time before they will reap the full benefits that eSIMs offer.

But, on the enterprise side, things are more interesting.

Why you should care

While providers are (somewhat reluctantly) launching eSIM consumer offerings, the enterprise side is racing ahead – and for good reason.

eSIMs fix ecosystem inefficiencies

Let’s say that you want to launch a 4G/LTE connected Elderly Care Management wearable in multiple countries, as Omate, a Shenzhen-based ODM, did a couple years ago. You have pulled together the technology partners from across the IoT solution ecosystem and are ready to launch – all you need to do now is “connect” those devices to a service provider. Then, suddenly, a challenge arises.

In the first country you want to launch, it takes 3 months to negotiate a contract with a local service provider. In the next country, it takes 2.5 months. Not only has your global go-to-market strategy slowed to a crawl, but you are paying higher rates because you cannot guarantee high volumes. In this scenario, the service providers have become an IoT ecosystem blocker rather than an enabler.

eSIMs help hardware manufacturers overcome this challenge. For its new devices, Omate uses a Tata Communications eSIM, which allows Omate to sign one service provider contract with Tata Comms and have the capability to provide network connectivity through its relationships with over 600 service providers globally without roaming. When a new customer first turns on the smartwatch in nearly any country, it is seamlessly connected as a local SIM on the local network.

For Omate, this eliminates the need for lengthy country-by-country negotiations with service providers, accelerates their go-to-market strategy, and reduces the costs to their customers as they leverage Tata Comms’ scale to offer lower data charges than they could get from other service providers. 

Products and devices can now be, as Tata Comms puts it, Born Connected.”

eSIMs transform the enterprise connectivity model

With the growth of the Internet of Things, service providers have tried to move away from providing “connectivity” to providing “solutions”, but this is harder than it sounds. While enterprises trust service providers for connectivity, they are less likely to do so with a business critical application or service.

The good news for service providers is that eSIMs are about connectivity, and that’s what they are good at. And some service providers already leverage eSIMs to transform the enterprise connectivity model.

Vodafone owns and operates networks in 26 countries, has partner networks in over 40 others, and is one of the leading service providers for enterprise customers globally. This combination makes it well-placed to take advantage of the eSIM enterprise opportunity. 

First of all, Vodafone has a strong automotive business thanks to its acquisition of Cobra in 2014, and is set to capitalise on the eSIM “connected cars” opportunities for infotainment, real-time navigation, insurance and breakdown services, as well as telematics and remote diagnostics.

In addition, the European Commission has selected eSIMs to form a part of in-car emergency call systems. This means that all cars manufactured in Europe from 2018 are required to have an eSIM that perform emergency functions such as reporting breakdowns and crashes. And considering that the EU manufactures approximately 20m cars annually, that’s a lot of eSIM connections and revenues – and Vodafone is strong across Europe.

And other countries are following suit, with Brasil, Russia, Thailand, China and the US all either issuing similar legislation or looking into it.

But it is about more than automotive. Another “hot” area for eSIMs relates to lifts (elevators). Vodafone partnered with ThyssenKrupp to support its MAX solution, the industry’s first real-time, cloud-based predictive maintenance solution. When ThyssenKrupp installs the new MAX box, it comes with Vodafone connectivity built in. Not only does this give them instant access to the data captured, but it also reduces the implementation costs to install the MAX box in their 1m lifts worldwide. Imagine if they needed to connect each of those 1m lifts to a network – even if it only took 15 minutes each – that would still cost 250,000 man hours. In this case, the eSIM pays for itself.

Other lift manufacturers have caught on to the value of built-in connectivity, with Kony also partnering with Vodafone and Schindler recently announcing its partnership with Telefonica to provide global connectivity to its Kite Platform for elevators and escalators.

This is a good model the lift manufacturers, but what about those companies that have to support multiple lift manufacturers across multiple buildings and countries?

Surbana Jurong, a Singapore government-owned consultancy that focuses on urban development, provides the lift monitoring solution used by nearly half of all lifts and escalators in Singapore and are moving into new markets like China. Their challenge is they monitor lifts from multiple manufacturers in multiple countries. To address this, they also jumped on the eSIM bandwagon by partnering with Tata Communications to support their “Smart City in a Box” solution.  

By partnering with Tata Comms, Surbana Jurong not only addresses the multi-vendor, multi-country challenge, but also the risk of poor connectivity in a given location. Tata Comms global network can access multiple service providers in each country, meaning the eSIM could connect to the network with the best coverage at each location.

Game changer – the service provider impact

Relatively few manufacturers ship devices with eSIMs today, which has led to the slow growth of the consumer eSIM market. However, as more devices ship with eSIM capabilities, the market will become attractive for services providers, particularly the Tier 2/3 providers and MVNOs that are trying to compete against the Tier 1 (incumbent) provider.

Incumbent providers have stronger distribution network and more retail store locations, so the eSIM model benefits the Tier 2/3 providers and MNVOs because it allows customers to sign-up online without ever having to go to a store. 

But, there is a catch. Providers first will have to invest money to deploy eSIM provisioning and support platforms, and some smaller service providers may struggle to justify the capex.

Leading eSIM management vendors (e.g. Giesecke+DevrientGemaltoIDEMIA) are wrapping up the larger service providers, but there is good news for the smaller providers and MVNOs as well. New companies are emerging (e.g. 10T Tech) that provide an eSIM Platform-as-a-Service model that eliminates the capex challenge. The eSIM ecosystem is starting to come together nicely.

eSIMs will “level the playing field” between the incumbents and the competition, which will to lower switching costs and data prices for consumers.  

Revolutionising business and operating models

We already discussed the impact eSIMs will have on the business and operating models of a start-up device manufacturer like Omate, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Another interesting model to review how Kärcher partnered with Vodafone to connect its industrial cleaning equipment and create a new service offering, Kärcher Fleet. By capturing data and displaying it on the customer dashboard in real-time, they are transforming their customer’s operations by enabling better asset utilisation, capturing service requirements, and reducing machine downtime through predictive maintenance.

In theory, this service could lead Kärcher’s customers to purchase less equipment, but they could recoup that loss through the new recurring revenue stream generated from the Kärcher Fleet service and the new customers it would help them acquire.

eSIMs help manufacturing firms transform their businesses and customer relationships. And considering sheer scale of the manufacturing industries in countries across Asia, you start to understand the size of the market opportunity.

Tata Comms eSIM solution not only supports customers directly, it also helps other service providers take their offering global. A perfect example of this is their recent eSIM partnership with China Telecom.

Why is this important? This partnership now gives China Telecom the capability to sell a global eSIM offering into the China’s massive manufacturing sector. Everything manufactured in China, from white-goods, to consumer electronics, to smart appliances, could now come “born connected”. Those manufacturers can leverage eSIMs to:

  1. Accelerate their global go-to-market strategy,
  2. Monitor product usage and performance to improve product design, and
  3. Generate new models (e.g. predictive maintenance, fleet management, usage-based charging) that leverage the data captured in real-time.

Tata Comms partnered with Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom as well, wrapping up another manufacturing-focused country in Asia. What I like about their offering is that they leverage both a direct and indirect model to drive the eSIM market.

eSIM, vSIM, iSIM, we all SIM

eSIMs are causing some disruption, but the next wave of SIM evolution should cause even more.

First, there are virtual SIMs (vSIMs). vSIMs provide a cloud-based number accessed via an application on a smartphone. In other words, an app on your phone replaces a physical SIM. 

Let’s be clear about the vSIM impact. Consumers could buy data online through an app and never have to purchase data from their local service provider.

Skyroam is a company that provides a global mobile hotspot (SOLIS) that uses an eSIM to provide customers with unlimited data access in over 130 countries. It is an interesting solution for international travellers, but their recent service launch goes beyond “interesting” to “disruptive”.

In December 2018, Skyroam received Indonesian government approval to launch a vSIM app called SIMO that gives users instant access to affordable mobile data without physical SIM cards or eSIMs. The government realises that providing more people with internet access will drive economic growth – and approved the SIMO app to help with this.

SIMO app with vSIM comes pre-installed on the Wiko Tommy 3 smartphone, a low cost device that targets the Indonesian market. People buy the phone and purchase internet connectivity through the SIMO app without ever having to sign up with a mobile operator. Skyroam expects the SIMO app to be on 200m smartphones, either pre-installed or downloaded, by 2020 in a country that currently has 133m internet users, 91% of which access the internet through a smartphone, and a population of over 260m.

Surprisingly, not many people took notice of this launch. I spoke with some people at the Indonesian operators and I asked them if they were concerned about lost revenues. They weren’t. “People don’t know Skyroam” was the typical response.

But then I asked, what if Grab or Go-Jek built vSIM functionality into their apps, and then they were worried. Maybe it won’t be Grab or Go-Jek, but it is a matter of time before a leading consumer brand goes after this market, and that spells trouble for the service providers.

Finally, the next thing to look out for is integrated SIMs (iSIMs). Vodafone recently partnered with ARM to reduce the costs and complexity of deploying IoT solution. ARM will “integrate” SIM functionality into its chip design, thereby eliminating the need for traditional SIMs. The target will be for chips that support devices or modules that leverage NB-IoT and LTE-M networks. Devices with ARM chips will ship with the capability to remotely provision the devices, which will simplify the deployment of LPWAN solutions.


eSIMs are a huge opportunity, but many will struggle to reap the rewards. It is too early to say who will win, but keep and eye on…

  1. Providers with global capabilities, either their own (e.g. Vodafone) or through partnership (e.g. Tata Comms/China Telecom), and solid enterprise offering that targets markets that are strong in manufacturing (e.g. Germany, China, Taiwan).
  2. Tier 2/3 providers and MVNOs who will look to leverage eSIM capabilities to target selected consumer affinity groups or target segments.
  3. Strong consumer brands that want to expand into new markets. Grab already provides transport, payments, and food delivery, so why not mobile services?
  4. Global hardware vendors (e.g. laptop or smartphone manufacturer) that do NOT have strong service provider relationships will inevitably look to add data connectivity to generate a recurring revenue stream. Google has already done this with its “Fi” offering on its Pixel phone, expect more to follow.
  5. Start-ups that rely on mobile network connectivity, particularly if they manufacture connected wearables (e.g. Omate) or support Smart City/Smart Building initiatives. Built-in connectivity will remove a major hurdle in their sales cycles and accelerate their go-to-market strategy.

The other question is who will not benefit from eSIMs. My view is that Tier 1 providers (incumbents) in countries without a strong manufacturing hub will struggle to reap the benefits. Their competitors, both the Tier 2/3 providers and MVNOs, will look to “steal” business away from them by offering differentiated service offerings and the global eSIM providers will capture much of the enterprise eSIM market.

5G will be a massive battleground in the future, but for now, the battle is eSIMs. Let the games begin.

Written by Charles Reed Anderson, founder Charles Reed Anderson & Associates. Asia’s IoT, Smart Cities & PropTech pragmatist, NOT evangelist. Senior advisor to McKinsey & Co and keynote speaker.

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