Google Project Fi and Programmable SIMs

2015 Prediction Update: Last year, we predicted that Soft SIM will become a feature on Android tablets as Google tries to overcome the barrier of data roaming prices to the use of its services when abroad. How does Project Fi stack up against the Apple SIM?

Christopher Fergus, Robin Oh / December 11, 2015

– Industry Prediction Update

In 2014, we predicted that Soft SIM technology would become a feature on Android tablets. While that hasn’t yet happened, there has been a rise in other SIM technologies that benefit from remote provisioning, and examples include the Apple SIM and Google’s Project Fi.

2015 Prediction: Soft SIM arrives to Android

Remote provisioning capabilities have huge implications for consumers and service providers, as the technology reduces the friction of changing carriers. As we follow-up on our prediction, we take a look at Apple and Google’s efforts to drive the adoption of new SIM technologies throughout 2015.

What is Soft SIM and Remote Provisioning Technology?

Historically, cell phones have had a physical Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that stores contacts, SMS messages, an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI), and an authentication key that associates the IMSI with a particular cellular network. This authentication mechanism enables service providers to limit the user’s access to a single cellular network and requires a user to swap their SIM if they want to be served by another provider.

As an alternative to physically swapping a SIM card, new credentials can be downloaded to the SIM over-the-air using remote provisioning technology. This requires a new kind of SIM – one that is reprogrammable. These are sometimes referred to as Soft SIMs, although more formally a Soft SIM is one that exists only in the software of the device whereas reprogrammable SIMs are still physical elements.

Service providers are understandably nervous about reprogrammable SIMs, particularly where a third party controls the functionality to allow selection of, and switching between, networks. In the last 18-months both Apple and Google have launched services that do exactly this.

Apple Leads The Way

In 2014, Apple brought its SIM play to consumers. “Apple SIM” is a pre-installed, non-carrier specific SIM card with remote provisioning capabilities. Apple SIM launched on the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3, and since then, it has expanded to select iPad Wi-Fi + Cellular models. Apple SIM is intended to make things easier for its customers while also keeping the user experience within the Apple ecosystem. For example, iPad users are not locked into a carrier, and have the freedom to choose short-term plans from carriers in the US and the UK directly from their device.

Google’s Project Fi

Google haven’t followed Apple’s footsteps in SIM technology. Instead, Google introduced Project Fi in April 2015. Project Fi is essentially a virtual wireless carrier (i.e., mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO) that combines networks from T-Mobile, Sprint, and public Wi-Fi hotspots. Project Fi provides a separate SIM card that transfers users between the different networks based on various connectivity considerations. So far the impact is modest as plans are by invitation and only available on two Google phones, the Nexus 6P and the Nexus 5X.

Figure 1: Comparison of Apple SIM and Google’s Project Fi


Programmable SIM: Disruptive Technology

Programmable SIM technology has the potential to alter the relationship between mobile users and cellular service providers, and we believe Apple and Google’s ventures are only the beginning. The expansion of Apple’s play to include Apple SIM for iPhones, Google’s play to expand Project Fi to all Android devices (phones and tablets), and potential moves by other vendors would have big implications on the dynamics between consumers and cellular providers.

Could future developments see removable SIMs decline, with SIM cards instead embedded within cellular devices? Also, could remote provisioning capabilities of SIM cards lead to a reduced role for MNOs and the increased importance of device manufacturers like Apple, or tech and software firms like Google?

We take another look at SIM developments in our Year End Review. Leading up to our Year End Review, read about the ten events and themes we believed would shape the technology, media and communications industry in 2015. Which ones are leading the transformation?

Read about:

Coming soon:

  • OTT and the cable industry
  • Cloud services
  • Wearables
  • The sharing economy

> Read our industry predictions for 2015 in our December 2014 Coordinates Newsletter


Cartesian (d/b/a CSMG): “Reprogrammable SIMs: Technology, Evolution and Implications” (September 2012)

Ovum: “Apple SIM to encourage no contract mobile Internet access but will it disintermediate operators?”

GSMA Intelligence: “Understanding SIM Evolution” (March 2015)