BARCELONA—Physical SIM cards could soon be a thing of the past, if companies like Skyroam have their way. With virtual SIMs already making their debut in global roaming hotspots like the Skyroam Solis, it seems inevitable that this technology will spread to phones, IoT devices, and more.
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"So the SIM card is actually important to the carriers in the sense that it sort of locks them into a relationship with the customer," said Eric Plam, VP of Skyroam. "The SIM is a tangible representation of a customer's relationship with their carrier, and so it's kind of a scary move to take that next step where there isn't that physical piece of hardware that connects people."
That situation resulted in the eSIM, an embedded SIM that can't be removed, but also doesn't need to be since carriers can provision and reprovision it remotely. However, Plam cautioned, "So this sounds really good on paper and technologically it works fine, but the problem is, there is a serious commercial barrier to making the eSIM work, [and] that is that carriers don't really do a good job negotiating with each other."
On roaming rates, for example, carriers negotiate with each other but customers ultimately don't benefit from competitive pricing. Carriers like T-Mobile offer free data and texting, but it's slow, stuck at 2G speeds. If you want a reasonable amount of 4G data at any of the four major US carriers, it can cost you more than your standard monthly phone bill.
"This is where Skyroam offers something that I would call commercially superior," said Plam. "Skyroam's virtual SIM technology is very, very neat. It lets us use existing physical SIMs that we then virtualize, and we can deliver mobile services to a wireless device, and change carriers on the device as needed, with Skyroam as the trusted third party."
We used the Skyroam Solis hotspot here at Mobile World Congress. The hotspot (which uses a virtual SIM), can deliver high-speed bandwidth the moment you activate a data pass. But that's not its only potential application, according to Plam, who pointed to a smart car.
"This is exactly the kind of thing Skyroam's vSIM can help with," Plam said. "[Maybe] you need to download the navigation update, or you need to download a new episode of a show you want to watch, or you want to do live video streaming in the car or surveillance monitoring in the car. All these rich content applications are ideally suited to Skyroam's vSIM."
Of course, before we get vSIMs into connected cars, we're more likely going to see it come to Android phones. At MWC, for example, we met with Telna, which offers each Android phone manufacturer its own profile setup for pricing, data tiers, and packages. Rather than simple customization, this model represents in Plam's view a complete shift in how the market is going to look in the future.
"In this case...you're essentially making the Android OEM the gatekeeper, whereas currently the carrier is the gatekeeper. The carrier decides now, but in this new model the OEM decides, and so they have to provide access. For example, when there is an image provided to the Android phone, we'll need to have a Skyroam application present in order for the consumer to use a data plan that they want. Definitely the OEM will have a say on what sort of plans are presented."
Potentially, in the future we could see some of the power carriers have when it comes to setting pricing and controlling the market for data diminish, though Skyroam doesn't envision itself doing that directly.
"Really our initial focus for this is going to be in the developing world, where there is already a pretty accepted model, where the phone is sold separately from the carrier, and in fact a lot of smartphones in the developing world already have two SIM slots and the ability to switch between carriers," said Plam. "So really Skyroam's focus is more going to be solving that problem. We are not intending to go in and compete with carriers in the US or Europe."
However, Plam does think there's going to be some changes as to how we consume data. Skyroam has a monthly subscription model for travelers who need more than 24-hour day passes, but Plam has another idea: sponsored data.
Social media sites "want users to use their services even when [they run out of data], whether it's in the United States or India or China," Plam said. "So what Skyroam is wanting to do is to allow app providers like social media to [stay] connected to their customers even after their carrier's data plan has ended. This is sponsored data, and we have a way to do that with Android phones from later this year."
Essentially, what Plam is speaking of is allowing certain content providers, mostly social media sites, to have data while other connectivity for general web browsing isn't functional. It could run afoul of net neutrality regulations, as it did for Facebook in India, but in the US, that's no longer a problem come April 23.
Skyroam would seek to bring a similar model to virtual SIMs, though Plam does clarify that it's opt-in and, "data is carefully secured and customers are only contacted if they have opted in to us."
The implications of this are interesting, mostly how it will hit carriers. "Right now, the carriers own the customer, and I believe that's going to start to erode," said Plam. "It's already eroding in certain parts of the world, and the next question is: who is going to wrestle control? Is it going to be phone OEMs or is it going to be app providers?"
Plam suggested Skyroam will level the playing field between these three groups by getting in between. Whereas before content providers used carriers to get to customers, the carriers would be the ones relegated to more of a dumb pipeline position, with Skyroam and its virtual SIMs as the intermediary.
Asked if this new model essential turns Skyroam into an ISP, Plam leaned back, smiled and said, "Yeah, we look a lot like a global ISP."