Connecting devices: Could iSIM be the key to opening up the IoT?

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Freelance Technology Journalist Kate O’Flaherty offers an in-depth analysis on iSIM, launched by ARM earlier this year. What is it, how does it differ from eSIM, and how will it impact the market?

This year’s saw ARM take aim at the internet of things (IoT) with the launch of iSIM technology – an integrated component built into the same chip as the processor. In many ways it’s similar to eSIM, but because it takes up less space iSIM is ideal for tiny IoT devices.

Among the advantages, iSIM lowers costs for multiple players in the IoT supply chain. It is cheaper than eSIM, because there is no need for an extra chip. In addition, there aren’t any assembly steps, and it results in fewer devices in the supply chain, reducing hardware manufacturing costs as a result.

Ease of integration is another factor that makes iSIM stand out: It reduces complexity because the modem and Sim card are “under one roof”, so there’s nothing for the device maker to integrate, Eden Cohen, senior product manager at Qualcomm, says.

ISIM technology offers multiple benefits for all players within the IoT space, according to Alex Gledhill technical specialist at Intel: “ISIM provides flexibility in business and deployment models, enables more services, simplifies OEM logistics, eliminates sku proliferation –  and there is a lower bill of materials cost, in particular for low power technologies like narrow band IoT (NBIoT) and Category M (Cat-M).”

This is because iSIM is more power efficient. Indeed, the lower price and ease of use associated with iSIM could easily be applied to smart meters or connected cars “where we need high security and low cost”, says Vincent Korstanje, vice president and general manager of the Secure Identity line of business at ARM. “A smart meter needs software updates, but this doesn’t need to be fast,” he points out – which makes it an ideal use case for iSIM.

ARM is predicting that 15% of all IoT devices will have cellular connectivity by 2025. The technology therefore opens up multiple opportunities for operators, because they will potentially see more IoT devices connected to their networks as a result.

Taking this into account, iSIM will also offer interesting use cases in the consumer IoT space, says Korstanje’s colleague, product marketing director Loic Bonvarlet. “This area is really a premium and iSIM might bring new interesting use cases from saved power and space – such as wearables and things integrated into clothing.”

Asset tracking and connected spaces offer more possible use cases for iSIM. “These use cases require a small module that is low cost,” says Korstanje. “When firms are able to track pallets around the world, they can keep a good eye on where things are and therefore improve efficiency.”

At the same time, iSIM can also be used in high end devices, says Gledhill: “For high end devices, iSIM can enable vertical applications such as payment, identity and digital rights management.”

Challenges

It is clear iSIM offers great potential to help drive the growth of IoT, but there are obstacles to be overcome. Guido Abate, STMicroelectronics international standards manager and the GSM Association’s RSPTEST Chair, points out that eSIM is “much more mature than iSIM”.

Gledhill agrees, saying iSIM is “in its infancy” and needs mass market adoption. “To achieve this, it requires system on a chip (SoC) integration, certification process enhancement and an ecosystem that provides the same level or better security than the traditional Sim.”

Remy Cricco, chairman of the board at the SIMalliance says the group’s members are observing “strong technological and business trends” supporting the continued growth of the ecosystem.

However, he adds: “As long as there is demand for strong device and service security – which SIMalliance sees as gaining even more relevance with society becoming increasingly connected – the provision of secure OS and subscription and data management services, remote provisioning capabilities and a comprehensive understanding of mobile operator requirements will be essential.”

Indeed, the standards for eSIM are already underway, with several devices already incorporating the technology. But to a large extent, iSIM can use the existing eSIM ecosystem and back-end infrastructure, says Gledhill.
At the same time, he says, security and certification challenges need to be addressed to satisfy MVNOs’ and mobile operator’s requirements.

But ARM points out that iSIM is in itself very secure. ARM’s iSIM offers its own low footprint OS, called Kigen, which runs on a CryptoIsland secure enclave. This means the Sim identity, a microcontroller and a radio modem can be embedded on the IoT SoC.

This is fully partitioned from the rest of the SoC, with self-contained processing and encryption elements running a secure operating system.

But despite this, Korstanje agrees there is more to be done. “We need to work hard on the standards side, but it’s not massively different: The software stack is the same,” he says.

The future

It’s early days for iSIM, but its future is looking very bright, with devices appearing as soon as next year. According to ARM, iSIM will appear from early 2019, with more announcements due in the first quarter of the year, ramping up for full adoption in 2020.

Meanwhile, Qualcomm says it is planning to offer iSIM within connected PCs running on its Qualcomm snapdragon processors set to launch in 2019.

Other technologies will also help fuel the use of both iSIM and eSIM in devices. For example, Gledhill thinks 5G will be an accelerator for the embedded Sim market. Gledhill explains: “Simply put, 5G will connect more devices – including low power IoT devices, cars, and PCs and tablets – to operator networks.

“This means more deployment and enablement of Sims on various existing and new technologies. It will drive new models and the user or enterprise has the ability to move between networks without physically changing the Sim card. This is particularly useful when applied to IoT devices in the field.”

As the ecosystem matures, there will be many more opportunities for both MVNOs and mobile operators that wish to play in the IoT space. But this will also put pressure on carriers to ensure their networks are up to scratch and able to handle potentially billions of additional devices over the next few years.

Meet with ARM, SIMalliance, G+D and many other eSIM innovators at the e-SIM Connect 2018, taking place at the ILEC Conference Centre in London – 6 – 7 November.