As global connectivity continues to improve and companies and organisations increasingly look to scale up their deployments, the need for adaptable solutions for IoT connectivity is a prominent focus. For those taking a cellular route, which an IoT Analytics report states that nearly 20% of global IoT connections do, 5G, NB-IoT, LTE-M and others remain in their arsenal as a way to communicate with their assets.
Yet especially for those deploying devices on LPWAN technologies like NB-IoT and LTE-M, the idea for those devices is that they are low-powered for the point they are mass deployed or in hard-to-reach areas and operators don’t want to have to physically interact with them often.
Alas, as with many things IoT, standardisation is an issue. While LTE-M is getting significant traction in North America, NB-IoT seems to be favoured by most of Europe and Asia as the preferred technology, and thus, one company with deployments in each would already find it increasingly difficult. Enter eSIM.
“eSIM is perfect for organisations that want to deploy IoT across multiple regions and, in particular, into regions that have connectivity challenges and restrictions,” Eseye CTO Ian Marsden told IoT Insider.
This is because eSIM contains a set of capabilities that allow operators to change the network profile remotely; other traditional SIMs either have a single operator profile (single IMSI) or multiple profiles (multi IMSI) pre-loaded but cannot receive remote updates of new profiles or selection logic.
There is even an “integrated SIM” or “iSIM” where the circuitry for the SIM is integrated directly into the modem, but as Marsden will tell you: “the more pervasive one used by the industry is eSIM.”
By either pulling a profile from the operator from a SIM provisioning platform or using embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card (eUICC) technology and Remote SIM Provisioning to update connectivity preferences, eSIM can facilitate switching of mobile network operator profiles over-the-air (OTA). This is possible because the eSIM is a digital SIM that is directly embedded onto a device’s circuit board, rather than being a removable physical card like traditional SIMs. This embedded nature allows it to be reprogrammed remotely OTA. The ability to change operator profiles OTA is enabled by eSIM’s support for a specification known as eUICC, which provides the necessary software architecture and secure environment to remotely manage multiple network operator profiles.
“Single IMSI SIMs are more restrictive and less resilient as they only have one primary network profile and rely primarily on the associated roaming agreements to get a connection,” explained Marsden.
eSIM in action
One scenario that highlights the flexibility eSIM can bring to your IoT deployments would be with a international logistics company, that has a fleet of trucks equipped with IoT devices for real-time tracking, cargo condition monitoring, and route optimisation. Now imagine if it has to go from Dresden to Munich, both in Germany, but to save time and fuel, the truck cuts through a second country, Czechia, for a short part of the journey. And maybe as part of the cargo it is carrying, medical samples for instance, records need to be kept of conditions throughout the trip to ensure compliance.
Using a traditional SIM in that situation with a single IMSI would mean when a truck enters the region it doesn’t have a profile for or where the operator has poor coverage or no roaming agreements, it would be unable to obtain live-data from that stretch of its trip.
With eSIM technology, however, the company can remotely reconfigure the IoT devices to connect to the best available network operator in each region it passes through. If a truck moves from a country with excellent LTE-M coverage to one where NB-IoT is more prevalent, for instance, the eSIM can be remotely updated to switch to the best available network, ensuring uninterrupted connectivity. Add this to the fact eSIMs are made to be multi IMSI means multiple profiles compatible with the areas can be set for the different countries before the journey commences.
“eSIMs provide the ultimate flexibility and versatility to be able to switch networks intelligently, or autonomously if a multi-IMSI and eUICC eSIM are combined,”Eseye’s Larry Socher explained. “Or a new network could be programmed over-the-air, for example, if deployment plans or locations happen to change.”
This ability to programme new networks remotely fits well with LPWAN technologies that power devices with long-life spans, meaning that should networks, regulations or even company plans for where they are deployed change, updates can be delivered to them OTA without having to access them.
These cost savings, from having to send an engineer out to tinker thousands of devices, can give companies courage to proceed with larger and broader deployments knowing there are contingencies once they send the devices out there.
But it’s not just operational flexibility, eSIM can bring benefits to deployments right at the manufacturing level.
“Imagine if you want to manufacture a single smart product that you can sell and activate globally and that means embedded global connectivity that just works – every time and everywhere,” says Socher. “Think of the alternative – without this capability, you cannot test products at manufacture, you have to install plastic SIMs as you have to use different ones depending on the country or location and you have to use multiple connectivity management platforms. These costs have hugely inhibited IoT adoption.”
Yet just how eSIM is a solution to the lack of standardisation of networks, it itself also suffers from standardisation issues. “The biggest challenge is one of standardisation, multiple eSIM standards are adding confusion in the market. The limitations on compatibility between modems and eSIM technologies mean limitations of choices for customers.” Socher highlights.
Equally, although the diverse Radio Access Types (RATs) allow it to adapt to various network standards like LTE, NB-IoT, the emerging 5G throws up another hurdle. “Although the majority of eSIMs are fully capable and ready to handle multiple RATs – such as LTE, NB-IoT and 5G – it is the other device components that may become a barrier – namely the module or modem. For the device to connect to future RATs, the module needs to be able to handle the various spectrums which is a key part of the decision-making process when designing the device hardware and selecting components eSIM technology enables IoT devices to seamlessly adapt to these changing network environments,” Marsden added.
Yet looking towards the future, eSIM technology is poised to integrate and leverage upcoming standards and innovations. The implementation of new GSMA standards like SGP.31/32, for instance, will further enhance the flexibility of eSIM technology, enabling even more dynamic profile management and network switching capabilities. Additionally, advancements in iSIM technology and the integration of eSIMs with 5G and satellite connectivity are on the horizon. These advancements promise to further streamline device designs and offer even more efficient power solutions, which are crucial for battery-powered IoT devices.
As the landscape of IoT continues to shift and grow, eSIM technology stands as a key component in future proofing IoT deployments, ensuring they remain resilient, adaptable, and efficient in the face of an ever-changing technological world. So whether you use this eSIM or that, the evidence is that its current benefits alone offer enough to make it a contender for future deployments.