A person using a phone with internet of things symbols.
Image: tippapatt/Adobe Stock

It might have come as a surprise last year when SIM cards began to make headlines. A technology that has been relatively settled in recent history was finally disrupted with the mainstream emergence of the embedded SIM.

Afforded instant notoriety due to their adoption in the latest iPhone, eSIMs will make an impact on consumers and businesses alike. For businesses especially, what comes after the eSIM will be the real game-changer, and the iSIM is on its way.

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The SIM evolution

SIM technology has been around for a long time and is responsible for mobile internet connectivity as we know it. Without them, we wouldn’t have mobile phones or any connected device that can roam and communicate without being “plugged in” to the network.

First invented in 1991, the same year as the first website, in the always-innovating world of technology, the SIM card survived relative aeons unaltered. But nothing good can last forever, and the new kid on the block, the embedded SIM, is quickly taking over.

It’s not just the new iPhone: eSIMs are increasingly being adopted by businesses. Since they support swapping to different connections, whether it’s a private network or different mobile operators, eSIMs can play an essential role in deploying global IoT solutions. For example, connected devices can be created in one factory and embedded with a global eSIM, meaning when they are shipped around the world, they can be given a local profile.

SEE: Hiring Kit: IoT developer (TechRepublic Premium)

The arrival of eSIMs means setting up connected devices is far simpler and more flexible — making it easier than ever to connect everything and achieve massive Machine-Type Communications. Since supporting this type of communication is cited as one of the main use cases for 5G, eSIMs should even help 5G networks finally live up to its much-hyped potential. The eSIM market is expected to be worth $16.3bn by 2027, according to Juniper Research.

Enter the iSIM

Despite how important the eSIM will be for the advancement of many next-generation technologies, it will not be the only game-changer in the SIM family — the integration SIM is already hot on its heels. The iSIM is, in a way, not a SIM at all, but effectively a “soft” SIM card, with the functionality fully integrated directly into the processor of the device.

There are two main benefits of this for connected devices and businesses leveraging them. The first is the much smaller power requirements of an iSIM. Since it’s not a separate component, iSIMs should use around 70% less power than an eSIM. This too will help make massive IoT use cases more viable. As businesses look to connect more and more things, extensive power requirements could quickly become logistically and financially untenable.

The other advantage is it saves space. Since you’re not adding an extra component in the form of a SIM card, it opens the door to connecting smaller devices. This will be very significant for massive-scale IoT to connect more things than ever.

What iSIMs will mean for businesses

As more businesses and industries around the world begin to commit to deploying massive IoT solutions, we will see a gradual growth in global iSIM adoption to support it. Another piece of the IoT puzzle is private 5G networks, which are also making big strides towards mass deployment. Private 5G is going to be crucial in supporting the connectivity demands of mMTC applications, delivering the “smart factories” and “smart airports” that have been talked about for some time. iSIMs will make it easier and more cost-effective for businesses to make this happen, meaning industry 4.0 is finally on the horizon.

However, there is a drawback with iSIMs that businesses and device manufacturers will have to navigate. Because the SIM is directly built into the device, it means product development timelines are likely to be longer. Rather than the fairly “plug and play” nature of a SIM or eSIM, iSIMs will have to be progressively integrated into the IoT solutions.

With that in mind, when can we expect iSIMs to really claim the SIM throne? While it’s likely that iSIMs will be deployed in the wild by 2024, we may have to wait a little while longer before we reach mass adoption.

Like every new generation of telecom technology, the iSIM will transform how businesses can connect devices and deploy solutions. Every player in the industry, whether it’s a module manufacturer, device manufacturer or connectivity supplier will need to deploy this transformation at their level. This transformation is inexorable but will be spread out over several years.

Either way, if we zoom out slightly and move away from the hardware particulars, one thing is for certain: Massive IoT development is set to ramp up over the next few years. This is in no small part thanks to the development of smarter e/iSIMs, but private networks will also be a big factor. Concepts that we’ve been hearing about for a long time, like machine-to-machine communications and industry 4.0, may finally become a reality, thanks to the next-generation descendants of the humble SIM card.

Luc Vidal-Madjar is the head of IoT solutions at BICS.

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