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  • Thierry Spanjaard

The SIM turns 30!

Looking back on history, G+D recently published a story about the beginning of the SIM cards 30 years ago, in 1991, with the company’s first delivery of commercial SIM cards to Radiolinja, then mobile operator in Finland. Before this, the concept of the SIM emerged when engineers from smart card manufacturers Giesecke & Devrient (now G+D), Gemplus and Schlumberger (both now part of Thales), participated in the standardization process of cellular communications, which became known as GSM. What they brought was the concept of having subscriber details on secure removeable chip while the handset remained standard. The concept of the SIM was born!

We all remember events linked to the SIM card. On October 7, 1991, I was a witness of the first roaming demonstration during Telecom 91 trade show in Geneva, where everyone was amazed to see people, who, at that time belonged to the operators' staff, able to place phone calls between Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns, directly, without any complication while all of them were standing in front of us in Switzerland! Roaming was amazing!

A single SIM card, the size of full ISO 7816 card, at that time costed the price of several meals in a restaurant, far away from the current prices!

No one really anticipated the role the SIM would play in the industry. A study made by a reputable analyst firm in 1990 said: “Mobile communication is to be a booming market. By year 2000, there will be 20 million mobile phone users!” In fact there was over 450 million mobile phone users in 2000! And now, there are more than 10.5 billion mobile connections, according to the GSMA. Over the years, the SIM card, and its evolutions, became the number one market segment of the whole industry both in terms of sales and net income.

Of course, technology evolved fast, along with the important standardization work done by representatives of all industrialists. The SMS appeared on consumer handsets in 1993, SIM Tool Kit (STK) was standardized in 2001, allowing to develop simple applications in the SIM card. To cope with the miniaturization of handsets and the inception of smartphones, the SIM card size had to evolve with the successive standards: Standard SIM (ISO 7816), Mini SIM, Micro SIM and finally Nano SIM.

After the Nano SIM, next step has been the integration of the SIM chip in the handset: the eSIM starting from 2012. We all know the SIM is now on its way down. Just in the consumer market, many handsets support eSIMs, and the eSIM has become the easiest way for end users to avoid roaming charges when traveling. In the near future, the iSIM, or integrated SIM, where the SIM functions are now performed by an isolated hardware component that becomes part of the baseband processor, may well be the eSIM replacement.

In the IoT market, it has already been clear for a while that the traditional SIM was not the way to go. The eSIM has become the preferred solution when it comes to providing connectivity to IoT devices. The iSIM or iUICC is bound to become the best option for IoT devices, as it allows a more integrated design, thus reducing power consumption and allowing for cost reduction.

When the SIM is replaced by the eSIM and iSIM, I will be able to say I have had the chance to experience both the beginning and the end of a fascinating technology over my career.

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