Navigating the intricate terrain of cellular connectivity for the Internet of Things (IoT) has become an increasingly challenging task in 2023.
As IoT Service Providers, MNOs, MVNOs, and OEMs, your choices today can have far-reaching implications on your IoT solutions' viability, security, and resilience.
This guide is intended to provide a deep dive into the upcoming trends in cellular connectivity for IoT.
At the heart of this landscape, we find the concept of the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) undergoing a transformative evolution.
From physical SIMs, we've moved to the embedded SIM or eSIM, and now we're glimpsing the dawn of Integrated SIMs (iSIM).
But just when you think you've got it all figured out, along come contenders – the so-called "soft SIM" and "cloud SIM."
These alternatives are tempting in their novelty, suggesting an attractive world without physical SIM hardware.
While they can seem like promising solutions on the surface, diving deeper often reveals a different story.
So why read on?
Because making the right decision about cellular connectivity for your IoT devices isn't just about keeping up with the latest trends.
It's about understanding the entire picture – both the allure of the new and the tried-and-tested strength of the established.
By the end of this guide, you'll not only grasp the pros and cons of each technology but also understand how to gauge their suitability based on a set of comprehensive criteria, including:
- Security certifications
- Security scalability
- Connectivity management
- Connectivity scalability
- Field-proven experience and future-proofing
Let's dig in and start with some definitions.
Evolution of Cellular Connectivity
Our journey starts with the humble beginnings of the cellular network and quickly transitions to the challenging IoT solutions of today.
Initially, the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) was a physical card you inserted into your device to be authenticated and connected to your network.
It was the key to mobile communication, first appearing in 1991.
However, as the technology powering cellular devices evolved, the size of the physical SIM became a little outdated. This led to the development of the Mini-SIM in 1996, Micro-SIM in 2003, and the Nano-SIM in early 2012, each iteration becoming smaller and more suitable for the shrinking sizes of devices.
The introduction of the eSIM (embedded SIM) in 2016 marked a significant turning point.
No longer was the SIM a separate, physical component; instead, it was integrated directly into the device's hardware.
This shift streamlines device design and facilitates greater flexibility in selecting network carriers, a highly sought-after feature in IoT deployments thanks to a reduced footprint and the ability to load the cellular subscription afterwards or change it remotely.
But the evolution didn't stop there.
The iSIM (Integrated SIM) was the next leap forward in 2021. Incorporating SIM functionality directly into the device's main processor, the iSIM enhanced power efficiency, reduced device size, and increased cost-effectiveness, becoming an attractive option in the IoT landscape.
Some describe the iSIM as a SIM integrated into a chipset.
Our view is that the iSIM is an integrated eSIM with maximum security and all the inherent benefits in terms of flexibility, remote connectivity management and intrinsic security.
Despite its newer status and smaller size, whenever an iSIM is used as an eSIM, it needs to follow the same certification processes as its eSIM predecessor. The critical data resides within the secure enclave of the chipset itself, providing a built-in and tamper-proof security measure.
In any case, whatever their form factors, SIM, eSIM, and iSIM are all standardized and based on a secure, tamper-proof physical component.
This aspect further strengthens its attractiveness for IoT applications, where data protection is paramount.
There is more.
Research suggests that by 2027, we could see as many as 300 million iSIM-compliant consumer and IoT devices in the field.
These developments will make it easier and more cost-effective for businesses to implement private 5G networks, supporting the connectivity demands of large-scale Machine-Type Communications (mMTC).
New Frontiers in Cellular Connectivity
Now, we're witnessing the emergence of Soft SIM and Cloud SIM technologies.
- The Soft SIM is a software-based SIM card. Also referred to as a virtual SIM, it features the functionality of a SIM but without a physical SIM card or embedded hardware.
- Cloud SIM follows a similar philosophy, but instead of residing on the device, the Cloud SIM lives in the cloud. The concept is that devices on the ground get temporary connectivity allocated by the cloud. In this framework, devices can share the same operational subscription.
SIM terminology and definitions
SIM (Subscriber Identity Module)
A physical tamper-proof secure chip that a mobile network operator provides to connect a phone or other device to a cellular network. It contains a unique identifier that allows the carrier to recognize the device and grant access to its services.
|eSIM (Embedded SIM)
A smaller version of the traditional SIM card that's soldered directly onto the device's circuit board, with the same level of security as a SIM. It can be programmed and reprogrammed to different carriers remotely. eSIM is also known as eUICC.
|iSIM (Integrated SIM)
A new version of eSIM with a smaller form factor than the eSIM where the SIM functionality is integrated directly into the secure enclave of the device's processor or System-on-Chip (SoC). iSIM has the same level of security as eSIM. iSIM is also known as ieUICC.
Also known as a virtual SIM, this is a software-based SIM. Instead of a physical card, the Soft SIM runs as any other software in the device to connect it to a mobile network. This concept is similar to the virtual SIM and is often provided through a mobile application.
A technology that allows multiple numbers on a single device and a single cellular subscription to be shared across multiple devices without any physical SIM cards. The SIM profiles are stored and managed in the cloud, and users can switch between different profiles as needed. It utilizes a digital version that can be provisioned and activated over the air through a wireless connection.
Let's dive deep into the advantages, potential limitations, and appropriateness of these new alternatives in the context of your specific IoT requirements.
A comparison: eSIM, iSIM, Soft SIM, and Cloud SIM in Cellular IoT Connectivity
eSIM (embedded SIM)
eSIM is a global specification by the GSMA, enabling Remote SIM Provisioning of subscriptions in cellular devices.
eSIMs are a big step forward from traditional physical SIMs. They provide the ability to change carriers remotely and seamlessly. Like physical SIMs, they're secure, reliable, and widely supported by many network operators globally.
The new IoT eSIM specification released by the GSMA further simplifies the deployment and operations of eSIM in IoT devices.
iSIM (integrated SIM)
iSIM takes eSIM a step further, integrating the SIM functionality directly into the secure enclave of the device's processor.
iSIMs provide all the benefits of eSIMs and more. They are more power-efficient and cost-effective and enable even smaller device form factors. As a newer alternative in the IoT connectivity space, iSIM may represent 19% of all eUICC shipments in 2027, according to Kalleido Intelligence.
Software SIM is a technology where SIM card data is downloaded and stored on the device along with other types of data. The device's processor executes the SIM software to handle cellular connectivity. There is no difference from other software or applications running on the device regarding data protection and resistance to attacks.
Soft SIMs are potentially simple to deploy as they have no specific hardware requirements. However, Soft SIMs face security, compatibility, and regulatory challenges as a newer alternative in the IoT connectivity realm.
Cloud-based SIM is another type of virtual SIM technology. Here, the SIM card resides in the cloud, enabling the device to switch between different network providers over the air.
Note that a specific software is running on the device, like the soft SIM, with the same drawbacks regarding data protection and resistance to attacks.
Cloud SIMs potentially provide better network coverage than Soft SIMs by allowing carrier switching.
However, like Soft SIMs, they are a newer alternative in the market and face security, compatibility, and regulatory acceptance issues.
Security and other concerns
Security Risks for IoT Applications
In a recent study, "Why IoT projects fail", IOTNOW magazine revealed that security had been the biggest concern for IoT projects for the last five years.
IoT solutions need end-to-end security, and that's easier said than done.
As IoT solutions develop, security needs to evolve right alongside them.
Soft SIMs and Cloud SIMs offer benefits like easy deployment, but their software nature heightens security risks, especially for IoT devices.
Compared to tamper-resistant hardware and field-proven options such as SIM, eSIM, and iSIM, software solutions are more vulnerable to cyber threats (ENISA).
Consequently, a compromise could lead to data breaches and disruption of entire IoT systems.
IoT devices, from smart home appliances to industrial sensors, already pose significant security challenges.
A notable example is the vulnerability that cybersecurity companies Mandiant and CISA uncovered in security cameras.
This vulnerability, identified in devices using the ThroughTek Kalay network, allowed cyber attackers to compromise the devices remotely.
The attackers could watch live feeds, listen in on audio, and potentially hijack the devices for further attacks. Such a breach threatens personal privacy and could lead to more significant security threats, such as snooping on sensitive enterprise meetings or devices being co-opted into botnets for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.
Adding a software-based SIM into the mix increases the attack surface for potential hackers. The attacks on IoT devices with software-based connectivity options would resemble those on PCs.
Once the device is breached, viruses and worms can use the network to target all the devices from a distance.
Potential threats include the ability to connect devices that were not initially authorized, thus enabling device impersonation and the use of unauthorized applications on the server. Potential threats also include corrupted data from infected objects, which could lead to disastrous disruption of services in security-sensitive markets such as healthcare, automotive, and energy…
Despite security measures like Trusted Execution Environment (TEE), software solutions cannot match the resilience of secure hardware options.
Interestingly, the likely point of attack for a Cloud SIM wouldn't be the cloud, which is typically harder to breach, but the devices on the field.
Once infected, typical threats could evolve into distributed denial of service types of attacks.
On the other hand, certified technologies like eSIM and iSIM have demonstrated high security and resilience standards against cyber threats. This makes them a more secure choice for IoT cellular connectivity, reinforcing the idea that hardware-based solutions are typically more secure than their software counterparts.
The importance of certification
The absence of universal standards for both Soft SIMs and Cloud SIMs could lead to compatibility and interoperability issues among different IoT devices, networks, and locations.
Furthermore, while we may have a cloud service protected against cyber attacks, obtaining strong security certification for software-based endpoints is not feasible. This presents a significant challenge because the overall security of a system depends on its weakest element.
So, even if a cloud system is secure, the software at the endpoint may still be vulnerable to attacks, leading to compromised security.
Consequently, the lack of standardization could complicate the management and deployment of IoT solutions and, more importantly, leave systems vulnerable to cyber threats.
Security certification performed by globally recognized independent bodies is the foundation of trust for the many industries and stakeholders of the IoT ecosystem that need to work within a common, reliable framework. Any self-declared security can't achieve this.
eSIM and iSIM technologies, backed by globally recognized standards, ensure seamless and interoperable deployment.
The GSMA imposes a high level of security.
For instance, the first eSA certification of an iSIM by the GSMA recently highlights its security capabilities and flexible connectivity potential. The certification further confirms iSIM's position as the next-generation SIM, offering a future-ready solution in the evolving realm of IoT connectivity.
Network Availability and Dependability
The reliability of Cloud SIMs, which is significantly dependent on network connectivity, might limit the deployment of IoT devices in challenging or remote environments.
These are common settings for IoT devices where network reliability can be a concern.
Inconsistent network connectivity could impair the functionality of Cloud SIMs, making eSIM and iSIM technologies more dependable solutions as they do not share this limitation.
Therefore, the dependence on high-quality network connectivity for Cloud SIMs could potentially restrict IoT operations during network outages or in remote areas.
Longevity and backward compatibility
Rapid evolution in the IoT world might outpace software-based SIMs' potential to extend the lifespan of IoT equipment. eSIM and iSIM technologies, backed by global standards and widespread industry adoption, offer backward compatibility and a more future-proof solution.
The proprietary nature of Soft SIM and Cloud SIM might lead to vendor lock-in, restricting organizations in their choice of other components, devices, or services. This lack of standardization might lead to increased costs and less future flexibility.
Usage Applicability and Case-Dependence
Each SIM solution brings its unique features and advantages to the table, making them suitable for varying use cases in the expansive world of IoT applications.
However, some notable challenges, particularly related to security, arise with specific solutions, making eSIM/iSIM technology the safer and more reliable choice for sensitive applications.
Let's examine this in the context of various IoT applications.
Example IoT application - Connected Cars
eSIMs, with their inherent feature of being embedded, are ideal for applications demanding longer device life cycles or those where physical access to the SIM card is challenging.
The realm of connected cars, offering features such as real-time navigation, emergency services, and infotainment, finds eSIMs particularly suitable due to their ability to connect with the most favorable local network, essential for vehicles used internationally or by frequent travelers.
Even though Soft SIM and Cloud SIM technologies could be simple, they can't meet the security requirements for those types of security-sensitive applications.
Example IoT application - Smart Grids
Integrating iSIMs within the secure enclave of the device's System-on-Chip (SoC) saves space and cuts costs.
Moreover, they provide high security, making them apt for applications demanding robust trust mechanisms.
Smart grids, requiring secure and reliable data transmission, can significantly benefit from the iSIM technology, securing remote connectivity to control the balance between the electrical power supply system's demand and supply.
Even though Soft SIM could also save space and reduce costs, together with the Cloud SIM, it can't meet the security requirements of such applications.
Example IoT application - International Shipping
International shipping logistics companies can hugely benefit from eSIMs, providing uninterrupted data for tracking and monitoring due to their ability to connect with the most suitable local network in various countries.
Although Soft SIM and Cloud SIM technologies might offer flexibility and potential cost savings, they introduce significant security risks, especially in sensitive applications such as smart cities, medical IoT, and maintenance scenarios.
Soft SIM in Smart City and Medical IoT Context
Due to their software-based nature, Soft SIMs are susceptible to hacking, viruses, and malware. In the context of smart cities, a hacked Soft SIM-operated traffic control system could create widespread disorder.
Similarly, a compromised Soft SIM in a remote patient monitoring device in the medical IoT space could reveal or alter sensitive patient data, leading to severe implications for patient privacy and health.
Cloud SIM in Maintenance and Remote Connectivity Cases
While Cloud SIM technology could offer simplicity, it simultaneously creates extra points of vulnerability because of the continuous information exchange between the device and the cloud server.
For instance, a compromised Cloud SIM controlling an IoT-based predictive maintenance system in a maintenance scenario could lead to incorrect data reporting, potentially causing expensive machinery failure.
Moreover, the reliance on a data connection to access the SIM profile makes Cloud SIMs vulnerable to service disruptions in cases of unreliable or compromised data connections.
In contrast, with the scalability needed in massive IoT applications and the low latency required in critical IoT scenarios, eSIM/iSIM technologies provide a more secure and reliable solution, overcoming the security concerns of Soft SIM and Cloud SIM technologies.
Here, we assess three significant players - eSIM, Soft SIM, and Cloud SIM and assign them scores on key criteria.
These include security certification, security scalability, simplicity, connectivity management, field-proven experience, and connectivity scalability.
The ensuing discussion examines these technologies, shedding light on their potential advantages, limitations, and suitability for different IoT requirements.
This comprises global certifications such as the GSMA specifications, leading to different Security Assurance Levels.
Compared to other solutions that use self-declared security, eSIM relies on security certifications from external globally recognized independent bodies. It scores the highest because of its unique combination of secure software and hardware. It is built-in and tamper-proof and is exponentially more and more adopted by Mobile Network Operators as well as device manufacturers.
Soft SIM lacks standardization and could lead to compatibility and regulatory issues. It is also software-based and vulnerable to cyber threats.
Cloud SIM similarly presents issues with standardization for devices and also depends on regulatory acceptance. However, the server can be in a secure zone. From the perspective of the devices, Cloud SIM is susceptible to risks similar to those of Soft SIMs.
- eSIM: presents scalable security by design and globally recognized
- Soft SIM: device-dependent security difficult to scale and security risks due to being entirely software-based
- Cloud SIM: similar risks to Soft SIMs on the devices, reliance on the robustness of infrastructure hosting multiple networks
- eSIM: eliminates the need for physical SIMs but requires hardware changes
- Soft SIM: uses downloadable software, allowing easy updates and deployments
- Cloud SIM: ability to switch networks, but depends on internet quality
- eSIM: allows for easier carrier switching
- Soft SIM: no hardware is needed, but it could face regulatory and compatibility issues
- Cloud SIM: potential for better coverage than Soft SIM, but relies on the availability and quality of the internet
Field-proven experience and future-proofing:
- eSIM: widely supported, standardized & SIM technology has existed for decades. eSIM technology is widely adopted in the automotive sector and sharply increasing in the smartphone industry
- Soft SIM: security, compatibility, and regulatory challenges
- Cloud SIM is about the same as Soft SIM regarding security, compatibility, and regulatory challenges. However, it can be hosted on a secure server
- eSIM: With GSMA SGP.32 standards, it provides scalable and unlimited connectivity by design, where and when it is needed, whilst following global standards
- Both Soft SIM and Cloud SIM lack standardization and are use-case dependent; the connectivity can't scale.
These scores are based on our assessments as of August 2023.
Conclusion on IoT Connectivity and SIM Technologies
Our exploration of IoT SIMs – from eSIMs and iSIMs to Soft SIMs and Cloud SIMs – highlights the unique benefits and challenges each brings to the IoT landscape.
- Embedded SIMs (eSIMs) emerge as a robust solution for most IoT use cases due to their embedded nature, secure global connectivity, and the ability to switch between mobile network operators remotely. Especially suited for applications demanding extended device lifecycles or where physical access to the SIM card is impractical, eSIMs offer substantial advantages in areas such as utilities, healthcare, connected cars, and similar applications.
- On the other hand, integrated SIMs (iSIMs), enhanced security features and chip integration are primed for applications requiring a high degree of trust and energy efficiency, like smart utilities. They save space, reduce cost, and offer increased security by integrating SIM functionalities into the system-on-chip (SoC).
- Soft SIMs and Cloud SIMs, despite their apparent flexibility, introduce significant challenges, such as dependence on network quality, potential security vulnerabilities, and issues of standardization and compatibility. This severely limits their potential, especially in high-stakes applications like smart cities and medical IoT, and when scalability is required.
As we plunge into an increasingly interconnected future, IoT Service Providers, MNOs, MVNOs, and OEMs must make informed decisions.
Their choice of SIM technology goes beyond influencing operational efficiency, form factor, and cost; it also sets the standard for the level of security achievable in their IoT solutions.
Based on our experience, eSIM technology is the first choice for its superior flexibility, robust security, and compatibility with a wide range of devices. It is also standardized and enables interoperability and trust required for the cellular IoT ecosystem.
This technology can serve IoT deployments effectively and efficiently, ensuring a secure and reliable connection while allowing for seamless network transitions.
For devices with lower power requirements or simpler functionality, transitioning to iSIM technology can bring further advantages in terms of cost and space savings.
iSIMs' integration into the System-on-Chip (SoC) of devices makes them particularly suitable for compact, low-power IoT devices, enhancing their efficiency and usability.
Remember, the most successful IoT deployments will be those that skillfully balance the needs for flexibility, cost-effectiveness, operational efficiency, and, above all, security.
More resources on eSIM and other technologies