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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

2016 was the first year I didn't buy a SIM card, for at least a decade

I've just realised that I didn't buy a single new SIM card in 2016.

In the past I've often got local SIMs when I've travelled (to avoid roaming charges), or sometimes replaced or got extra ones for the UK, for mobile-broadband dongles or second phones. Quite often I'd buy 5 or more in a year. I think my record was about 10.

But in 2016 I just kept the one Vodafone SIM I've had for quite a while, used on a data-heavy SIM-only plan in an unlocked iPhone.

There's a few reasons for this. The main one is that I use Vodafone's Euro/World Traveller plans, which cost £3 a day in Europe and £5 a day in various other countries. (IIRC, changing EU rules mean I may now be able to get "roam like home" free coverage - I need to check whether I need to change my current plan). 

In particular, for the US I find it pretty good (I'm there about once a month) and while it's more expensive than getting a local pre-pay SIM (T-Mobile used to be $2/day, not sure what it is now), it means I don't have to faff around with swapping over, plus I can call/SMS on my usual number & don't need to revalidate WhatsApp, iMessage and various others that also link to numbers. Put simply, £5/day is a bit of a rip-off (£2-3 would be fairer), but when I'm travelling I have other expenses that are higher on my list. It's the equivalent of a beer a day - although it gets expensive if you start to spend 50 or 100 days a year in a given country.

In theory, I could get one of the "roaming SIMs" from Truphone or 100 other sources. Or I could buy or rent a WiFi-hotspot type thing and use that. But it means more to carry/charge, and for the places I (mostly) go, it's just not that necessary. I don't need local numbers either (I hardly ever phone/SMS the country I'm visiting) so multi-IMSI isn't a big deal for me either.

The other main reason for not buying an SIMs is the countries I visited last year. Mostly it's been Europe and the US for work, plus South Africa, Israel - and Central America on my vacation recently. The VF plan has either covered them, or else (eg Nicaragua & Roatan in Honduras) there's been enough WiFi everywhere I needed to use the phone, plus offline maps. I haven't been elsewhere in SE Asia or MidEast, where I'd normally need cellular coverage. A week off-grid in the desert at AfrikaBurn in April proved that I don't *really* need to be connected 24x7, even though most of my friends think I'm glued to my phone.

And the last reason is that I haven't been tempted by any other cellular devices. I don't need a 4G-enabled tablet or PC. My FitBit works fine with Bluetooth. I don't drive or need/want a "connected car". I have no IoT devices at home, and wouldn't have cellular-connected ones even if I did.

Maybe 2017 will be different - I'm planning an Asia trip or two, and perhaps I'll be vacationing in places that are less WiFi-connected. I might churn from Vodafone if another UK operator has better coverage, roaming or other temptations. But it was really notable that on my recent trip, I didn't even bother going into a Nicaraguan mobile store to check SIM availability and price. Maybe if I was there on business, or for an extended period, I would have done so - I even had a spare phone I could have used as a WiFi tether.

Friend & fellow road-warrior Andy Abramson also mentions not buying SIMs in his latest blog (link), but that's more driven by Google Fi and Gigsky.  

All this has some interesting implications for eSIM - a topic I've looked at extensively over the past year & published a report on (link). 

Would an eSIM-powered iPhone make a big difference to me? Well, firstly it would need to be supported by VF UK, on the same SIM-only plan I use today with a removable, pre-provisioned card. And it would need to come with some sort of option for local data in the US & assorted other countries for £2-3 per day, while neatly re-routing my UK number calls/SMS and allow apps like WhatsApp to re-authorise or just continue unaffected. Given iMessage's occasional glitches when friends port or change numbers, I'd be wary anyway.

What about an eSIM-capable companion device like a WiFi hotspot or tablet? Maybe a hotspot, if I have to travel to random places which still have stupidly-priced roaming, or not much WiFi. But it would have to be very cheap, and very simple. Cellular tablet? Nope.

I can't really see myself getting an eSIM-powered car or other IoT gadget this year, either - although I may find myself renting one I guess.

In other words, unless my travel patterns in 2017 are very different to 2016, I can't see myself buying more than 2 or 3 SIMs, and it may well be zero again. If I do, I'll probably get them at airports with very little hassle, so "remote provisioning" won't be a huge boon to me personally. I continue to think that eSIM is going to be a slow-burn evolution and won't be a big deal for the mobile industry one way or another.

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