The Internet of Things, or IoT, has been a hot topic in the business and technology press for a couple of years. Although IoT is a relatively new term, the concept of remotely managing and controling machines and devices is nothing new, previously being referred to as Telemetry, Telematics, or Machine-to-Machine (M2M) technology. These technology waves were driven by specific vertical industries that could justify the return on investment and overcome the lack of standards due to industry wide scale. The advent of a connected society combined with the success of early adopter industries such as automotive, has provided hope that we’re at the tipping point for the mass release of connected devices and services.
The mobile communications services industry has responded to this potential by generating standards and releasing offerings such as NB-IoT, CAT-M, and 5G. These new technologies will tune licensed communications transport to meet the performance and price needs of IoT applications across a range of vertical applications from simple once a month meter reads to connected vehicles. However, there’s still a key solution link where standards are lacking: the IoT devices themselves. Each device is bespoke built to meet the performance and cost requirements for that specific application. Using the examples of a meter and a connected vehicle, they’re both IoT devices, but have almost nothing in common as far as components, operating systems, software, processors, etc. This makes it difficult to mass deploy enabling technology and innovate across vertical applications. The mobile handset world doesn’t share this problem as there are two dominant operating systems – iOS and Android. These dominant operating systems enable the creation of vast developer communities working as ecosystems fostering innovation that drive down costs while making evermore applications possible at reasonable price points.
The solution to this challenge for IoT lies in a core component of the mobile network offering: the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM), that’s inserted or embedded in every device connected to a mobile network. The SIM is a global standard going back to 2G mobile technology in the 1990s and is forward and backward compatible. SIMs are small processors originally invented to secure and authenticate the mobile network subscription when a phone attaches to a network. It achieves this by running an algorithm and checking the result against an authentication server in the network. So by nature, SIMs are secure elements, basically a standardized security chip that reside in every device on a mobile network. Because SIMs need to work in all mobile devices and networks globally, the standards are detailed and must be adhered to regarding interfaces to the hardware and the network. The strength of the standard is inherent in the way a SIM interacts with the rest of the device via the SIM Tool Kit (STK).
Until recently, the SIM’s processing power has been underutilized, limited to network authentication and roaming management. But SIMs are now being recognized for their full potential by leveraging the capabilities of this existing, required component that’s already a sunk cost – to solve IoT service challenges related to application security, connectivity quality of experience (QoE), and application enablement – all in a standards-based manner that efficiently adds value across the universe of IoT vertical applications. The business benefits to device developers and deployers include an accelertated time-to-market and reduced costs while standards assure this key component will not soon reach end-of-life.
While the technology behind SIMs helps drive mass deployment of IoT devices, there’s still much growth ahead as the industry recognizes the full potential and embraces the opportunity. SIM companies and mobile network operators must support the creation of developer ecosystems by providing improved development tools and adopting business models that incentivize developers to participate. The industry needs to drive the standards’ vision beyond what’s deployed today in mobile subscription security. For example, adding STK functionality to perform basic, common IoT functions for monitoring and controlling the status of a sensor would turn the SIM into a secure IoT processor eliminating the need for a microcontroller in the device architecture, saving cost, space, and power consumption while increasing application security. The value added could extend to devices not on the mobile network including those communicating via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or not attached to a network at all. The SIM‘s value is in its standards, security, and mass deployment. Billions of these standard components have already been successfully deployed around the world.
The delay in SIMs reaching their full potential for IoT hasn’t been technical, but more related to a common mature technology market dynamic. The mobile industry has been caught in the innovators’ dilemma of prioritizing what the SIM currently does for its customers while efficiently driving down costs as opposed to dreaming about what it could be in the future IoT device architecture and business driven value chain. Because of the strong standards, SIMs are by their very definition a commodity and they end up being priced as commodities. This has caused the market participants to focus on fighting for their share of the pie. Expanded functionality and utility in SIM standards along with the establishment of a broad developer ecosystem will grow the available pie for all and open up the potential to sell value added solutions getting the participants out of the fight over the current, defined slice.