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Monday, July 17, 2006

The Tyranny of the SIM Card

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but some events today have catalysed me into action.

I've regularly been using the term "Tyranny of the SIM Card" in meetings and at conferences for the past few months. I'm fast being converted to the idea that the SIM is a relic of the 1990s, and deserves to play little (if any) role in the future of mobile telephony, except for the most basic prepay low-ARPU mobile-only unconverged services.

Don't get me wrong, there are some good things about SIMs. They can be transferred between handsets, they're secure, and they have enabled some OK-ish first-generation data services. I bought a bunch of local SIMs in Africa over Xmas to make cheap local phone calls. Easy to distribute, and proven technology. The problems occur when you start trying to "converge" products and services from multiple sources. I own my PC & laptop, I've got a couple of "vanilla" handsets knocking around, my consumer electronics are my own and so forth. If I worked for a large company, I'd have a wide variety of bits & pieces of comms & IT kit that are owned or leased by the organisation.

The SIM is essentially "a service provider on a chip". Which is fine for authenticating you against things that are standalone services, like basic mobile voice on a basic phone. But much less good in instances where there are multiple parties involved in security - your IT department, your broadband provider, your digital TV supplier, or indeed you yourself.

I'm never going to have a SIM in my TV set. Or a SIM in printer, or my home broadband WiFi router. They're mine, they're not subsidised, and I don't want them "registering" with a service provider before I can use them. Similarly, I don't want a SIM embedded in a laptop, as it turns it from being a computing "product" into "part of a 3rd-party service". Sure, if I use a cellular broadband data card, I might use one, so long as I don't have to have branded & clunky operator-specific software cluttering up my device UI.

Clearly, the more advanced FMC services cannot rely on a SIM in everything, especially in the typical multi-person, multi-service providers, lots-of-consumer electronics household. Thus the fixed-line equivalent of IMS, ETSI's TISPAN architecture, allows non-SIM devices to be connected. And if you won't get SIMs in everything in a converged service.... then why bother to have them in anything?

But what's really convinced me of this is my experience today. On Friday I wrote about my nightmare experience getting a new phone & plan from Carphone Warehouse. Well, the helpful guy's promise held true, and I had my new phone delivered this morning. Only without the new 3G SIM the invoice suggested ought to be in the box. Cue another round of IVR and customer service hell. In the end, rather than wait for another delivery, I got them to credit my account with the cost of a replacement SIM & arrange to pick one up from my local store.

Observations? Both the customer service rep and the sales guy in the store were confused & asked me if my old (2G) SIM didn't work in the phone, as that should suffice. I had to point out that the new phone is 3G, and that therefore a 3G SIM might be useful if I was to access the new & wondrous services promised by the marketing people. "Oh, well it only gives you access to videotelephony" was the helpful response. Eventually I persuaded the guy to give me a new 3G SIM, after pointing out that there were in fact some technical differences between the SIMs, even though they were the same shape.

(even more amusing is that on CPW's receipts, they still refer to O2/Telefonica as BT Cellnet. The invoice says "BT 3G SIM" )

I now have to have the new one's IMSI registered. There will, apparently, be an indeterminate time between my old 2G one ceasing to work and the new 3G one being activated. Between 2 and 24 hours. Useful, eh? So business contacts, friends etc go to voicemail if I'm lucky, or get lost in the ether in the intervening period. What idiot thought that system up?

I mean, when I part-exchanged my car earlier this year, my dealer didn't have to tell me to re-register the new key for 6 hours with the DVLA (UK car & driver licensing authority)? I gave him the old key & car, and drove off with the new one. When I download a new version of the Skype software, it doesn't need a lengthy re-registration period. Replacement credit cards work instantly, perhaps sometimes with a phone call to confirm receipt.

This is a theme I'm going to come back to, because I reckon I'm one of the few who's really stood up and said that the SIM Emperor has no clothes. No, I'm not sure what to replace it with yet - but I'm sure someone will have a smarter idea than the current dinosaur-on-a-chip.


Ian Wood. Principal Wireless Foundry LLP said...

Dean, Can see your frustration in having to deal with the security side of O2 to stop over use of your handset if it gets stolen/lost.

Can I suggest that the next time you are in Newbury you ask Vodafone for a view on SIM based services. In a meeting last week I was told that Holland is working on a number of developments for the SIM toolkit. Perhaps once more services are available on the SIM side then we will become less frustrated when upgrading.

Anonymous said...

Go back to the original meaning of SIM - Subscriber Identity Module. If all it did was identify you as an individual then things would be much better. The problem comes when in fact it represents a binding between you as an an individual and a subscription, plus a binding between that subscription and a service provider. Plus, the problem triggering this latest episode, a binding between that service and the underlying technology.

There's a lot of resonance with similar problems in the DRM world right now. When I buy content that is protected by OMA DRM, say, I bind it to a specific playback device and don't really get to own it outright as I would if I bought the physical media in the analogue world. See what marlin and coral are trying to do in DRM to address this - separate the ownership of content by individuals from the binding to devices or service providers.

If we could keep SIMs to be a secure token that identified a subscriber then I would be happy to put it into my laptop or other home device. Of course, it's a separate discussion as to whether or not that's necessary.

Anonymous said...

Did you really have a SIM card problem?

I don’t think so. I think it was only an IT / organization process issue. The SIM card change order in the HLR does not require more than few seconds (5 to 10 minutes to be realistic). So, I imagine that Carphone Warehouse logistic system and O2 provisioning system are just prehistoric nightmares, like in many network operators. That is why you may have a very long service disruption.

On the other hand, I agree that they are many questions about SIM future. Most of them are related to the identity management. SIM together with the HLR provide you an identity both for:
- network connectivity
- service access

Regarding the network connectivity, the SIM still have many advantages: security, mobile handset independence, roaming facilities…
But, as you already identified it, the SIM role for service access identity is more and more questioned. In the future, it could be replaced by the email address, the Skype identity, the MSN/Yahoo/Google account, a third party SIP registrar or the famous but hypothetic IMS identity unfortunately provided by the network provider…

There are many things to discuss about this topic. It is probably the key point to define the future business model in telecommunications.

Anonymous said...

"I reckon I'm one of the few who's really stood up and said that the SIM Emperor has no clothes. No, I'm not sure what to replace it with yet "

The last para surely makes the entire posting utterly irrelevant? Similar to someone who misses a train and starts a rant saying all trains are rubbish. Honestly, Dean...

Anonymous said...

I am actually a fan of SIM card, but I agree that it should not be tied to a service provider. It looks like a new authentication and billing provider is needed that allows a SIM card user to use any access/application service of users choice but authenticated and billed.

If we do not have SIM card, how do you do it? User name, password? That is another hell i do not want to live with. But good topic for discussion though.