Understanding eSIM technology: What is it and why does it matter?

What is an eSIM?

You might have heard the latest smartphone you have been eyeing being touted as able to support eSIM technology, but try as you might, you still do not know exactly what they mean by that.

eSIM, short for embedded SIM card, refers to a shrunk down SIM card that comes integrated in a mobile phone and has the capability to connect to any mobile network as long as the mobile network is offering the eSIM services.

The shrunk-down SIM card, will work as exactly as the normal-sized physical SIM cards that we are used to here in Kenya, the difference being, the eSIM is soldered to the device, therefore you cannot take it out and move it to another smartphone.

To activate eSIM services on your eSIM capable smartphone, an internet connection is required to download your eSIM profile to the device.  A QR code is then provided by the mobile service provider of your choice. After scanning the QR code, the eSIM settings for that specific mobile service provider you selected will be downloaded to your device, and you will now be able to use that network without the need for a physical SIM card being inserted into your phone.

All the services and products like M-Pesa present in the physical SIM card will also be present in the eSIM card.

Not all phones in the Kenyan market currently support eSIM technology, though this will definitely change in the next few years as some Kenyan mobile carriers like Safaricom and JTL (Faiba) have started rolling out the technology.

The origins of the eSIM

The development of the eSIM to its current state can directly be credited to the ‘Internet of Things industry’.

The Internet of Things (IoT) which encompasses a vast field from sensors in self-driving cars to chips identifying different parts being assembled in a factory, is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

Now, as I have touched on the IoT industry being wide and applicable in various industries, I will restrict myself to the mobile phone industry.

Devices like drones, wearables, sensors, and location trackers are prime examples where IoT has widely been used. All the aforementioned devices have gotten smaller and sleeker with each passing year. This forced manufacturers to come up with ways to shrink the parts present in the devices, including the sizes of the SIM cards, while still maintaining the same functionalities of the devices.

As a result, we have ended up with the eSIM, and the technology is now being moved over to the smartphones’ scene.

READ:  24Bit episode 42: Exploring the Internet of Things

As early as 2017, Google Pixels had started supporting the technology, with Apple following suit in 2018. But the technology did not take off in the United States as expected, with mobile carriers unwilling to move away from the physical SIM cards.

In Kenya, JTL (Faiba) announced support of eSIM technology on 22nd January 2021 while Safaricom followed suit on 8th June 2021. Other mobile carriers like Airtel and Telkom still do not support the technology, but that is expected to change should the transition for Safaricom and Faiba be successful.

Advantages of eSIM

  1. Since eSIMs do not occupy huge spaces like the traditional physical SIM cards, you can expect smartphones to be slimmer in the coming years.
  2. eSIMs give you the flexibility of switching the mobile network you are using on the fly since you only need an internet connection to download the settings of a different one. This is especially useful when you are travelling to a different area or country where your network provider does not have coverage.
  3. Since they are reprogrammable, they can be managed in bulk in a situation such as the admin of a company switching all the hundreds of company smartphones from one network provider to another conveniently within a short time.

Despite the advantages being numerous, there is still one major drawback. By virtue of the eSIM being embedded in the smartphone, you can not just take it out and insert it in a different phone if you happen to own two or three.

You will have to go through the hassle of downloading the eSIM settings for the other devices, as well syncing them to reflect it is the same person using two or more smartphones.

eSIMs together with 5G technology are the next step in smartphones evolution, and it is only a matter of time before they are successfully incorporated in the Kenyan market.

Finally, we will be able to get rid of people selling physical SIM cards along the Kenyan streets, which has already raised security concerns, with unscrupulous people taking advantage and conning gullible Kenyans out of thousands of shillings from their bank accounts and mobile money services through the information obtained in the ‘registration process’.


Featured image source: NDTV

Naftaly is a Computer Science graduate with a passion for tech, video games and pop culture. When he is not writing articles for AndroidKenya, he is probably rewatching the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the hundredth time. Email at criskariuki@gmail.com Twitter @KarisNaftaly