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As First eSIM Hits West Africa, ‘SIM-less’ Phones Cap 25-Year SIM Evolution


July 16, 2020

They may still seem futuristic but ‘SIMless’ phones are already here. Actually, they’ve been around for quite some time but until yesterday, they probably seemed all too far-fetched.

On Wednesday, July 15, Africa’s biggest telco, MTN Group, scored yet another first when its Nigerian subsidiary, MTN Nigeria, became the first mobile telecoms operator to introduce the eSIM (embedded SIM) service in Nigeria and indeed West Africa.

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The well-known Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) is the small chip that is inserted into mobile phones which identifies an individual as a subscriber on a mobile network. It is associated with a unique number and it enables users to make calls and send messages, among other things.

The eSIM that has just been launched in Nigeria by MTN was actually first introduced in 2015. It is essentially a small chip that is built into some of the newest smartphones at the point of manufacture. One could even think of it as a virtual SIM.

Enter: the eSIM

The eSIM is quite unlike the physical SIM cards that are currently the norm and the eSIM packs some advantages. No physical SIM cards are involved and no physical swapping of cards is required if a user wants to swap networks. Also, the information on an eSIM is rewritable or reprogrammable, meaning that users that change their network operator at will.

While a regular SIM card is capable of holding just a single profile for one customer, eSIMs allow multiple network profiles on a single embedded chip. 

With technology evolving rapidly, the eSIM also brings the capability of having SIM profiles on devices like laptops and smartwatches, and even cars — such that phone calls are already being made from smartwatches. The eSIM can simultaneously work on multiple devices, which is quite the upgrade from a single physical SIM card tied to one phone.

The eSIM is, in fact, a substitute for the physical plastic SIM cards, and a more flexible one at that. Smartphones that support eSIMs only require the addition of a SIM profile to the phone and it works just the same way a normal SIM would — just without the tiresome exercise that comes with prying SIM card slots open and fiddling with multiple tiny plastic objects.

However, it might take a while before the eSIM goes mainstream as it is currently only tailored for a small group of high-end smartphones including Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 3, Apple’s newest iPhones (from iPhone XR to iPhone Pro Max), Samsung’s newest S20 series, and a number of others.

The SIM card evolution

Vodacom was the first network to launch support for eSIM devices in Africa, unveiling the service in South Africa in March 2019. MTN Group had soon followed, launching the service in the same country last October.

By expanding the eSIM service to Nigeria through an initial one-year trial phase closely monitored by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telco is looking to move with the times.

Over the past two decades, the SIM card has undergone various stages of ‘size-shrinking’ metamorphosis, and perhaps it should have registered earlier that, by continuously getting smaller and smaller, physical SIM cards would eventually disappear and go virtual.

First-form factor SIM cards that were introduced in 1991 were the size of the credit/debit cards that are in use today. In 1996, those gigantic SIM cards gave way for a smaller plastic SIM known as the mini or regular SIM. 

This second-form factor SIMs were caught from the credit card-sized SIM and they were the kind used in some of the earliest well-known phones in Nigeria like the Nokia 3310. They sort of became the standard SIM, the next two generations of SIMs (i.e that Micro-SIM and Nano-SIM) were cut from them.

The Micro-SIM (third-form factor) came out in 2003, it had the same thickness as the standard SIM but took up much smaller space. By 2010, the Micro-SIM had become very popular as it was then the norm for smartphones which were just starting to go mainstream in these parts. 

In October 2012, the Nano-SIM (fourth-form factor) was ushered in. It was less thick and very tiny as it was basically a microchip with plastic on one side and metal on the other.

At the Mobile World Congress that took place in Barcelona in 2015 Simless, Inc., a US-based startup unveiled the world’s first GSM phone without a SIM card slot. This laid down the groundwork for the commercial rollout of the eSIM in 2016.

Although eSIMs are still relatively unpopular, the progressive replacement of older SIM cards in the years past makes a strong case for the idea that eSIMs may become the norm in the future.

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