The advent of an increasingly larger number of new eSIM-capable IoT devices since 2016 (including Apple's new iPhones and iPads and Android eSIM-ready smartphones since the end of 2018) have raised the challenge to deliver a straightforward customer experience regarding the mobile eSIM-enabled connectivity.
With the eSIM being soldered deep into the device hardware, mobile ecosystem stakeholders have to answer a vital question:
How to remotely provide mobile connectivity to a genuinely offline eSIM-enabled device, while enhancing the user experience subscribers were used to with traditional SIMs?
This article will present the four different user-friendly options to activate remotely an eSIM-equipped consumer such as smartphones, connected PCs, smart watches….
Introduction to the eSIM activation challenge
Indeed, the SIM card was so far the only operator’s connectivity element. As a physical form factor representing the mobile operator’s subscription service, the removable SIM card brings users simplicity of use and freedom of service. For this reason, it will still be there for a long time.
The eSIM ecosystem is now turning a physical market (i.e. SIM) for mobile operators and OEM into a fully digital one. As such, the SIM card dematerialization represents a true Big Bang for mobile operators because it constitutes the digitalization of the connectivity distribution. As the SIM’s worthy heir, the eSIM has to bring this customer experience to the upper level.
Before moving forward, let’s review three of the main GSMA-compliant eSIM architecture components:
- The eUICC is a piece of the device hardware that acts as a secure container to store the eSIM profile into the device.
- The eSIM profile is a virtual profile that stores the user’s subscription and network settings and allows the user to connect to the corresponding mobile network.
- The operator’s Subscription Manager Data Preparation platform (aka SM-DP+, i.e. the eSIM subscription management server) aims at securely downloading the eSIM profile it stores onto the eUICC. Once the operator’s BSS creates the subscription, it informs the SM-DP+ about the availability of this subscription and requires the creation of an eSIM profile.
Let’s see the 4 different ways to activate an eSIM-enabled consumer device, i.e. the various methods to link an eSIM-based mobile subscription and an eUICC-equipped consumer device:
1. QR code-based voucher activation
2. By-default SM-DP+ address-based activation
3. GSMA’s Root Discovery Service-based eSIM activation
4. Initial connectivity
1. QR code-based voucher activation.
Let’s assume a user wants to buy an eSIM-based mobile subscription – at an operator’s point of sales or online – for her/his eSIM-capable device s/he already owns or that s/he’ll buy later. The first option for mobile operators consists in providing customers with a QR code e-voucher to be scanned with the smartphone in order to download the eSIM profile (corresponding to the subscription just bought) to her/his device. Said differently, this QR code simply contains a set of information (e.g. SM-DP+ address…) that tells the device where to get its final eSIM profile from.
Then there are 3 pre-requisites:
- A primary connection must be available for attaching the smartphone and the SM-DP+. Basically, SM-DP+ is a platform that stores the digital eSIM profiles The primary connection can be based on Wi-Fi or an eSIM bootstrap profile provided by the OEM.
- The OEM vendor must embed the LPA (Local Profile Assistant) in the device OS: it is an application that allows the eSIM profile download to the eUICC and local profile management on the device by the end user (i.e. QR code scanning).
- The mobile operator must equip its points of sale with printers for stamping the QR code or must provide physical paper activation vouchers to its users (see below the example of StarHub in Singapore). In both cases, there is a risk of loss or theft of the QR code.
StarHub eSIM activation voucher for Samsung Gear S3 4G Smartwatch
There are two more things to remember:
- This voucher activation method is widely used for most of the launches of eSIM-enabled consumer devices, such as Samsung’s Gear S2 3G smartwatch, e.g. TIM Italy, Orange France. Interestingly Apple's latest 2018 generation eSIM-compliant iPhones also rely on QR code.
QR code scanning step during the subscription activation process for Samsung Gear S2 Smartwatch.
- This option is suitable for open market devices only, i.e. devices sold independently from a mobile subscription.
2. The SM-DP+ address set by default in the eUICC.
Operators can alternatively sell a mobile subscription with an operator-branded handset.
In this context, the second option to activate the eSIM subscription consists in pre-provisioning the device’s eUICC with the operator’s remote SIM provisioning platform (SM-DP+) address during the device manufacturing stage. Consequently, once switched on for the first time, the device directly connects to the SMDP+ server to retrieve its full eSIM profile.
This makes adoption and activation of eSIM technology simpler thanks to excellent customer experience.
However, mobile operators need to work closely with OEMs to customize the devices to their network. This may generate non-negligible inventory and supply chain costs compared to vanilla open market devices.
A primary connection is still required for attaching the device the first time to the network’s SM-DP+ server.
At last, this mechanism only works for operator-subsidized eSIM-enabled handsets, the user has to buy the operator’s subsidized handset together with the mobile operator’s subscription. Thus it is a perfect fit for markets with high post-paid penetration, such as the US.
3. GSMA’s Root Discovery service-based eSIM activation.
Since the second semester of 2017, a third option exists to remotely activate a consumer eSIM-capable device. Indeed, Thales, a Thales company, deployed the first solution of this kind.
It is called Subscription Management Root-Discovery Service (i.e. SM-DS); indeed it intends to further enhance the customer experience of connecting an open market consumer eSIM device to the mobile network with the offer of the user’s choice.
In this case, the user purchases separately her/his eSIM-based mobile subscription and smartphone. Once switched on for the first time, the device will automatically and instantly retrieve over-the-air the eSIM profile (corresponding to the mobile subscription just bought by the user) destined for the device.
It provides a true out-of-the-box mobile subscription activation and makes adoption of eSIM technology a lot simpler for end-users.
How is this magic made possible?
As for in the QR code activation process, it requires:
- A minimum first level of native connectivity for the devices for attaching the smartphone with the SM-DS platform.
- LPA to be supported by the device.
In addition, mobile operators and other mobile connectivity providers must also connect their SM-DP+ platform to the SM-DS platform (what they are increasingly doing).
So far, the GSMA Root Discovery Service is provided by the GSMA and is now used by an increasing number of mobile operators and device makers.
4. Initial connectivity via Thales Instant Connect.
Today, the download of eSIM profile requires the eSIM-ready device to be connected to the mobile network through a first sort of Internet connectivity (e.g. Wi-Fi, smartphone tethering, bootstrap connectivity).
In an approach to always simplify the customer journey as well as possible and to support its digitalization, Thales works on solutions allowing an out-of-the-box initial connectivity channel for the download of eSIM profiles. This is in addition to Wi-Fi, smartphone tethering and bootstrap channels, as explained above.
This multi-channel approach will maximize the activation of eSIM capable devices, whilst providing a seamless customer experience. As a result, this delivers value for all the ecosystem’s key stakeholders: Mobile Network Operators, Device Makers, eSIM makers, end-users.
In June 2019, Thales has announced the availability of a revolutionary solution for providing initial mobile connectivity: Thales Instant Connect. It allows OEMs and mobile operators to remotely and automatically provide initial mobile connectivity to eSIM-ready devices at power on (as they come unconnected), wherever they are, while drastically simplifying OEMs' supply chain and enhancing the user experience.
This solution won two awards in 2019: Future Digital Award for Technology and Innovation (from hi-tech analyst firm Juniper Research) and IoT Global Award.