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Your next SIM card could be built directly into the phone chip

eSIM
(Image credit: AndreyPopov)
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Vodafone, Qualcomm, and Thales have successfully completed a trial of iSIM technology that could pave the way for more devices to be connected to and managed by mobile networks.

Traditionally, connection to a cellular network has involved the use of a physical SIM card and any change in network has required a SIM swap.

Software-based eSIMs marry the functionality and capability of a SIM card with the ability to change provider remotely, aiding consumer choice, enabling new service models, and offer manufacturers greater flexibility in design.

iSIM potential

eSIMs also transform the economics of massive IoT deployments that rely on sensors being left untouched for up to ten years. However, eSIMs still require a dedicated processor and therefore demand physical space on the device and system resources to function.

An iSIM offers the same benefits as an eSIM but is directly integrated into a device’s main processor, sitting alongside other critical capabilities like CPU and GPU. Operators can still remotely provision iSIMs using existing eSIM infrastructure, but manufacturers and customers have much greater freedom in the size and type of device they can connect to cellular infrastructure.

For example, the space previously occupied by a SIM chip could be used for a bigger battery in a smartphone. 

“iSIM solutions offer great opportunities to MNOs, free-up valuable space in devices for OEMs, and provide flexibility for device users to benefit from the full potential of 5G networks and experiences across a wide range of device categories,” said Enrico Salvatori, senior vice president and president, Europe/MEA, Qualcomm Europe. “Some of the areas that will benefit most from iSIM technology include smartphones, mobile PCs, VR/XR headsets, and industrial IoT. By engineering the iSIM technology into the SoC, we are able to create additional support for OEMs in our Snapdragon platform.”

This latest proof-of-concept adhered to GSMA specifications and was staged at one of Samsung’s European research and development (R&D) facilities using Vodafone’s network and remote management platform. The device in question was a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 5G powered by a Snapdragon 888 5G Mobile Platform and Thales iSIM operating system.

All parties involved claim its success demonstrates the commercial readiness of both the technology and the infrastructure required to support it.

“Our aim is to create a world where every device connects seamlessly and simply to each other, and the customer has complete control,” said Alex Froment-Curtil, chief commercial officer at Vodafone. 

“The iSIM, combined with our remote management platform, is a major step in this direction, allowing devices to be connected without a physical SIM or dedicated chip, making connectivity to many objects – the promise of the connected IoT world – a reality. It will enable our customers to enjoy the ease of multiple accounts on one device, while from an operator’s point of view, help eliminate the need for separate SIM cards and the additional plastic this consumes.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.