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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The next step in multiplicity: Multi-IMSI SIM cards

I've written numerous times before about mobile multiplicity


What I haven't really discussed before is the concept of multi-IMSI SIMs. An IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) is essentially equivalent to a mobile "subscription" or "account". It's not the same as the device identifer (IMEI) or a specific number (MSISDN).

Clearly, there are numerous scenarios where people might want a convenient way to have access to multiple MNOs. It could be because of coverage reasons, pricing, roaming, particular service availability, different purposes (eg work vs. personal accounts) and numerous others. Yes, many of the MNOs would prefer you to concentrate all your spend and mobile activity - but I'm talking here about what the user wants.

Generally the current SIM model, for all its security and convenience advantages, mitigates against this. It's difficult to balance a single experience - or payments - across multiple MNOs. There's no easy equivalent to flipping up a laptop lid & seeing 3 different WiFi networks available on the connection manager.

In the past, the only services used were voice and SMS - and so it made sense to have a single service provider, as you had to keep the same number in order for people to reach you. But for other services, there's no reason not to shop around - Internet access from one MNO, perhaps a music download service from another, an enhanced roaming service from a third. It's up to the operators to pitch a convincing bundle - but as phones get cheaper, most users will expect to be able to pick and choose to some degree, even if it just means having two or three separate devices, with one SIM in each.

This is why I refer to the 'Tyranny of the SIM card', especially around areas like data and roaming. The advantages of security start getting outweighed by the disadvantages of lock-in. Yes it's sometimes just a benevolent dictator, but if you take that analogy, then SIM-locked phones are the equivalent of political imprisonment, especially if they are unsubsidised.

The easiest way around this is just to have an unlocked device and SIM-swap, but frankly that's a bit of a pain for most people. The new dual-SIM devices are a more elegant way around the issue, although the range of products supporting this is currently very limited.

There have been various discussions in the past about "soft SIMs" (Intel seemed keen on the concept for laptops, for example), although these have generally been swept away by security concerns (and, behind the scenes, commercial concerns as well).

Multi-IMSI is something that's been mentioned to me quietly over the last 12-18 months, with increasing frequency. It essentially enables multiple accounts/subscriptions to be loaded onto a single (hardware) SIM. Now at present, it's not possible to have them running simultaneously (eg for separate voice and data connections), and you cannot just "download" multiple operator personalities (eg Vodafone + Orange + 3) as most major MNOs only issue their own, single-operator SIMs.

But I've been hearing about some interesting potential applications, in a variety of contexts. A number of SIM suppliers offer the cards, and various network-side companies have methods of working with them.

I also reckon that there are some interesting regulatory and competitive impacts of the technology if it works well: perhaps even the mobile equivalent of an "unbundled loop" in the long term.

I've got some more to say about some specific applications of multi-IMSI, but I'll leave that to a separate post.

2 comments:

Alexander Trommen said...

The dual IMSI topic becomes reality in the USA for the first time allowing business travelersto cut costs significantly. United Mobile, the leading MVNE for roaming free SIMs, is on the hunt for the business traveller segment by offering a “pay at national rates while abroad” solution to the business world’s most frequent inter-country travel destinations USA - UK

Business Travellers between the US and the UK can finally reduce their calling costs significantly by using the new United Mobile dual IMSI SIM card. It behaves in both countries as a local SIM card using the +1 or the +44 IMSI to register in the visited network. Travellers can always be reached under both numbers regardless of where they are roaming. This allows British travellers to call at national US rates while roaming in the US. US travellers enjoy national UK rates while roaming in the UK plus roaming free calls in 80 additional countries. The total cost of calls is dramatically reduced as United Mobile’s solution saves the costly forwarding of calls from a local VOIP number and allows colleagues or friends to call directly the low cost national prefix number.

United Mobile, managed as the first mobile virtual network enabler to launch a dual IMSI for the world’s most frequented business traveller route. The product was specifically made with the business traveller segment in mind – most American companies have their European headquarters in the UK. The product allows companies to reduce mobile phone costs significantly without having to implement complicated applications on the device or specific numbers which often lead to lack of acceptance amongst employees. The United Mobile dual IMSI SIM does not require the purchase of a new phone and thus users can keep their contacts in their existing devices says Alex Trommen, Chief Marketing Officer of United Mobile. Anyone interested may test the card at CTIA in booth 6524 in the Central Hall

Nabil Eid said...

Reference to Mr. Dean article, i quoute
1-"A number of SIM suppliers offer the cards, and various network-side companies have methods of working with them".

What are these methods?

2-"I also reckon that there are some interesting regulatory and competitive impacts of the technology if it works well".

What are the regulatory and competitive impacts of this new technology (Multi IMSI)

3-"perhaps even the mobile equivalent of an "unbundled loop" in the long term"

Can you please clarify this issue and show its relation to the new technology

4-"I've got some more to say about some specific applications of multi-IMSI, but I'll leave that to a separate post"

Is this post available? what are the specific applications of Multi IMSI?