One of the big goals for 5G is to be able to use the technology to communicate with numerous devices other than cellphones and tablets. In order for that to happen the cellular industry is going to have to adopt eSim technology, which means creating virtual sim cards inside of devices rather than requiring the physical sim card that is used today in cellphones.

Traditional sim cards don’t play well in the IoT world. Many IoT devices will be tiny sensors that will be low power and that will be too small to hold a sim card. But probably more importantly, for IoT to grow as envisioned by the cellular carriers, customers are going to need an easy way to change wireless carrier without having to change a physical sim.

Picture the future smart home that has numerous smart devices that tie into a cellular network to get to the cloud. It’s likely that most devices you buy will come with a pre-paid subscription to some specific carrier, but that eventually that carrier will want homeowners to pay a monthly fee to continue the monitoring. I picture the nightmare where I might have devices that are monitored by each of the major cellular carriers, and each is going to want me to pay a monitoring fee to keep my devices connected to the cloud.

The only way most homes are going to agree to this vision of the world will be if they can migrate all of their devices to the same cellular network. And that means a homeowner (or farmer or factory owner) is going to want the option of homing all of their devices to the carrier of their choice. That’s where eSim comes in – it’s a virtual sim card that can be redirected at will by the customer without having to deal with physical sim cards. I envision sim manager software that will register and track all of my sim devices and that could move them en masse to a new carrier at my command.

Today’s sim card technology is a dinosaur and I liken it to the analog settop boxes that cable companies forced customers to rent from them. Cellular carriers have been extremely slow in accepting sim card technology because they know that having to physically change a sim card is a barrier that will stop some customers from changing service to another carrier. The big cellular companies say they have been working on eSim technology, but it’s been dragging slowly forward for years.

There are already products using eSim. For example, the Samsung Gear S2 smartwatch was the first commercial device to include eSim in 2016. Samsung used the eSim technology because there wasn’t room for a sim card. However, this is not an eSim card like I described above. A customer can’t change the carrier on smart watch that comes preset by Samsung. However, early eSim devices show that the technology works.

There are carriers in the country that are pushing for eSim. For example, smaller and regional cellular carriers like C-Spire and Ting are pushing for the technology. Some of the big cable companies are pushing for the technology.

What’s needed to make eSim work is a set of universal standards that would allow a customer to aim the eSim at the carrier of their choice. And that is going to take the cooperation of the big cellular companies. There is enough pressure on them that this change is likely to start happening over the next few years. Hopefully the eSim technology will just become part of the expected background technology that makes devices work on cellular networks, and that customers in the future will be able to easily decide their cellular carrier without the hassle of dealing with every cellular device in their home. My guess is that teenagers a decade from now will never have ever heard of a sim card and it will be just another obsolete technology.

The History of Cellphones

IBM-SimonThis is another blog that looks at the history of the industry and that today I look at the history of the cellphone. Cellphones are arguably the most successful product in the history of our industry, but young people are often surprised to find out that the industry and technology are still relatively very new.

Prior to 1973 and stretching back into the 1920s there was some version of radio phones that were mostly used by businesses with vehicle fleets. These services were generally of somewhat poor quality and also limited either by the number of simultaneous users (only 3 at a time, per city in the early 50’s) or by geography (you couldn’t leave the range of the tower you were connected to).

But several breakthroughs enabled the cellphone technology we know today. First, in the late 1960’s Philip T. Porter and a team of engineers at Bell Labs proposed the system of modern directional cell phone towers that we still have in place today. In 1970 Amos E. Joel of Bell Labs invented the ‘three-sided trunk circuit’ that is the basis for cellular roaming, allowing a call to be handed from one cell tower to another.

The big breakthrough came in 1973 when Martin Cooper of Motorola and researchers at Bell Labs came up with the first hand-held cellphone. The first phone weighted two and a half pounds and was nine inches long. The first phone could hold enough charge for 30 minutes of talking and took ten hours to recharge. But the idea of having a handheld portable phone took hold and several companies began developing a wireless product. Interestingly, none of the prognosticators at the time thought that the technology had much of a future. They predicted future customers in the tens of thousands and not in the billions that we see today.

The first commercial use of the new cellular technologies was introduced in Tokyo in 1979, Scandinavia in 1981 and in the US in 1983. The technology was analog and referred to as Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS). It had a number of flaws by modern standards in that it was susceptible to eavesdropping by use of a scanner and it was easy to introduce unauthorized phones onto the network. I can recall occasionally seeing somebody talking on one of these mobile phones in the 80s, but there were relatively rare. But the phones got smaller and batteries improved and the first flip phone was introduced in 1989.

The first system that was more like what we have today was also introduced in the US by DynaTAC using 1G technology. Early 1G was an analog service and was made into a digital offering in 1990. In the early 1990s the second generation network was introduced using 2G. There were two competing technologies at the time (and still are today) that differed by the underlying standards – the GSM standard from Europe and the US-developed CDMA standard. The first GSM network was introduced in Finland in 1991 and hit the US in 1993.

Also introduced in 1993 was the IBM Simon phone that could be called the first smartphone. It has features like a pager, fax machine and PDA merged with a cellphone. It included advanced features for the time including things like a stylus touch screen, address book, calendar, calculator, notepad and email. About this same time was the introduction of texting. The first text message was sent in England in December 1992 followed by Finland in 1993. Texting was everywhere by the mid-1990s.

The demand for accessing the web from a cellphone drove the creation of 3G. This changed the phone from circuit switching to packet switching allowing the introduction of a data connection. The first 3G network was introduced in Japan in 2001, Korea in 2002 and in the rest of the world starting in 2003. By the end of 2007 there were 295 million customers using a 3G network which represented 9% of worldwide cell phone subscribers. Apple released its first iPhone in 2007 that used the 3G technology. That phone was the first ‘modern’ smartphone and today smartphone sales dominate the worldwide market. Finally, around 2009 saw the introduction of the first 4G networks, This increased theoretical data speeds by a factor of 10. There were two different commercial standards for 4G data – WiMAX and LTE. Many of these networks in the US have just been completed for most urban and suburban customers.

So it’s easy for a kid to think we have always had cellphones. But the first iPhone was only seven years ago and the flip-phone was the predominant phone for more than a decade before that. Before the flip phone there were very few cellphones users compared to today. This is an industry that has grown entirely during my career in the industry and it’s still hard sometimes to believe how well it has done. Now, if I had just bought that Apple stock . . .