Embedded iPhone SIM Idea Miffs Europe Cell Carriers

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The notion that Apple may be planning to use embedded SIM cards in future iPhone models has at least some of Europes cell service providers hot under the collar. According to the Financial Times, some of Europe’s mobile service providers are threatening to withhold iPhone subsidies should Apple adopt the newly approved SIM card format.

The problem with the new style SIM, according to the carriers, is that Apple could potentially use it to side-step mobile operator’s relationship with end users. They fear the cards could also be a first step in Apple selling its own service, or serve as a bargaining tool for customers demanding shorter contract lengths.

Europe’s cell carriers aren’t hip on embedded SIMs


The GSMA — the organization that oversees mobile communication interests — approved the programmable SIM cards earlier this week and comes on the tail of rumors that Apple has been working on an embedded programmable SIM card for future iPhone models. The card could potentially be activated for a carrier when the device is purchased, or via the iTunes Store.

Even if Apple doesn’t head down the embedded SIM path, the technology could still prove useful for devices outside of the mobile phone market.

“As our industry moves from connecting phones to connecting a wide range of devices, it is apparent that the embedded SIM could deliver even greater flexibility,” commented GSMA CEO and board member Rob Conway. “The embedded SIM will provide assured levels of security and portability for consumers, as well as provide additional functionality for enabling new services such as e-Wallet and NFC applications.”

Should Apple embrace embedded SIM cards and Europe’s cell carriers retaliate, the battle could eventually draw in the European Commission, too, since they could be seen as blocking competition — something that Apple’s been accused of in the past.



There is a fundamental difference in the way people use cellphones (and SIMs) in US and EU. Since half of American cellphone users are on non-GSM networks (Verizon, Sprint), they don’t even have a SIM. The other half is oblivious to its existence, mainly due to the fact that almost nobody uses pre-paid accounts, and it is fairly difficult to just buy a pre-paid SIM card without a phone. Perhaps it has something to do with the way US distributes phone lines among area codes; most EU countries have separate area codes for mobile numbers, and these are universal throughout the country, while US mobile numbers are tied into a local exchange office and appear to users as identical to local land lines.

The main difference is that in EU, many people move their SIM card from phone to phone. These two are usually treated as two separate entities (a phone number, on a SIM card, and a phone device). I have met many women who have four or five phones of different colour, to match different outfits, and just move SIM from phone to phone.

In the US, literally NOBODY does that. Therefore, Apple may as well weld that SIM to the phone anyway for the US market. However, outside the US, they should not be surprised at the resistance.


Dear Vasic:  While your comments have some merit today, remember that the U.S. and most of the world is moving to LTE 4G networks, which can and, I think, should use a programmable SIM card.  The FCC should move now to require all current and future LTE networks in the U.S. be fully compatible with programmable SIM cards, require that all future LTE cell phones have programmable SIM cards, and prohibit any carrier from retaliating or discriminating against any OEM or vendor of mobile devices that deploy programmable SIM cards in its mobile devices.

This would ensure that U.S. consumers using LTE networks would not have their choice of carrier and plans restricted by a non-programmable SIM card that ties them to a particular carrier.  That would enhance competition among carriers here in the U.S., and more competition among carriers is both needed and mandated by market economics, U.S. antitrust law and policy, and by the need to break up telco oligopolies that price their services too high and that impede any innovation or change that threaten their oligopoly.


Well, the concept sounds great in theory. Essentially, it should offer precisely what current movable SIM card concept offers. You should be able to easily move your mobile number from one device to another, as well as change the mobile number (and carrier network it’s on) on your device. These two are primary advantages of a movable SIM.

Carriers love SIM because this is their point of contact with their customer. It is the SIM that is directly associated with the mobile number and the carrier network.

However, I can’t imagine why bypassing the SIM would be detrimental to the carriers. If the SIM were to become embedded, that would mean that the mobile number and the associated carrier network would be tied/locked straight to the phone. Unless the new ‘programmable SIM’ card concept is made in such a way to completely exclude the ability of carriers to lockd/disable user programming, I would think the concept would make it easier for carriers to control their subsidised phones than using the current, easily breakable, subsidy lock for SIMs.

I can’t imagine anyone in the industry would allow development of this “consumer-programmable embedded SIM” feature that would NOT allow for carrier control/restriction/disabling. So, if they can get it their way, carriers have absolutely nothing to lose here, and perhaps even something to gain.


Vasic:  I believer that Apple’s technology would not let a carrier lock or disable the user’s choice of carrier.  The customer could program his cell phone as he pleased, subject only to whatever contract that he entered into with a carrier.  That contract would be enforceable in the courts but not in the programmable SIM card, unless Apple was willing to disable an iPhone based on a carrier’s complaint that its customer had breached his contract with the carrier.  In any event, the issue of a customer’s breach, which is the only legit reason a carrier would have to complain, can be fairly and efficiently handled in a number of ways that don’t require giving carriers a kill switch or the ability to remotely reprogram a phone’s SIM card.  For example, the government could mandate that a third party, probably Apple, kill the iPhone on a carrier’s prima facie showing that a customer was in breach of his contract, with the customer being able to challenge the carrier’s complaint in a FCC arbitration or the courts. 

And whether the SIM card is programmable by a customer should not be left to the industry but is a matter within the FCC’s jurisdiction and should be left to the FCC alone, guided by the FCC’s mandate to provide efficient wireless phone service, promote competition, and foster innovation.  The industry is or ought to be a petitioner before the FCC, not the government that is in control of our communications system, or at least that is the theory, because the carriers do what enriches them constrained only by the law.  The FCC is supposed to be that law.

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