Apple adds eSIM to new iPhones

Apple's new iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max are two of the company's three newest devices. (Apple)

Apple announced on Wednesday that its newest iPhones—the iPhone Xs, iPhone Xs Max and iPhone XR—will support eSIM technology. The technology paves the way for iPhone users to more easily switch providers.

Specifically, eSIM technology promises to allow customers to switch their service from one wireless network provider to another without having to physically replace a SIM card inside their phone. Instead, customers would be able to switch their service remotely, over the air, without making any physical changes to their device.

However, as explained by Mac Rumors, Apple is touting eSIM as a way for customers to maintain two different service accounts through a dual-SIM setup where one SIM is a traditional, physical SIM and the other is an eSIM. The publication noted that such a design will allow users to maintain two phone numbers, where both can make calls and texts but only one can maintain a data connection.

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Dual-SIM phones are often used by travelers to avoid roaming fees. They are commonplace in countries like India. 

"Introducing dual-SIM in all markets is a bold move by Apple and something that will give mobile operators a lot to think about," wrote CCS Insight analyst  Geoff Blaber. "Having pioneered the technology on the iPad and Apple Watch it was only a matter of time before it appeared on the iPhone. The potential for new business models is reduced while Apple continues to offer a physical SIM card slot alongside the eSIM capability, but if it eventually decides to get rid of the physical SIM all together it could have significant implications for how customers buy airtime in future."

Apple first introduced eSIM technology in some of its iPads. However, the company's move to bring the technology to its phones marks a major change to the company's phone strategy. Moreover, it's critical to Apple's U.S. business considering Apple powers roughly half of all smartphones in the United States.

To be clear, Apple isn't the only company supporting eSIM technology. As one analyst noted, Google's Pixel 2 also supports eSIM technology, though Verizon is the exclusive wireless operator for the Pixel 2, so the impact of that device is relatively minimal compared with Apple's support for eSIM.

Interestingly, T-Mobile's CEO John Legere voiced support for Apple's embrace of eSIM technology. "I love that @apple is offering dual and eSIM in the new #iPhones – it makes it easier to try and move between providers, which is fine with me because everyone wants to switch to @TMobile!" Legere tweeted.

In a statement, T-Mobile provided details: "Dual SIM gives you the convenience of having two phone numbers on a single iPhone. You can have separate personal and business numbers, add an additional line when traveling internationally, or purchase a separate data plan. On iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max, Dual SIM is a combination of a physical nano-SIM and an eSIM, which is a digital SIM that allows you to activate a cellular plan without having to use a physical nano-SIM."

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile were named by Apple as supporting its eSIM action. Sprint said that it would support the technology later this year. Apple also added that eSIM technology would be added to its new iPhones through a software update later this year.

"eSIM I think is a great innovation in the industry," said David Christopher, who has responsibility over AT&T's wireless business. However, he declined to comment on whether the carrier was worried that the technology could lead to higher churn among AT&T's customers. "We'll have to see what the consumer demand and appeal is."

IoT and module vendor Sierra Wireless issued a reaction to Apple's eSIM announcement: "“Apple’s eSIM announcement demonstrates the growing adoption of eSIMs (or eUICC for the technical term). This will tremendously accelerate the adoption of this technology and help drive large scale deployment and interoperability across multiple carriers. This is excellent news for IoT that requires very simple and low touch solutions to reach its potential. Using classic plastic SIM cards is a major logistical and reliability impediment, and a barrier for all the uses cases that require miniaturization," said Sierra's Philippe Guillemette in a statement.

Apple's move to eSIM is particularly interesting considering the Department of Justice is reportedly investigating the nation's wireless operators for potentially slowing the rollout of eSIM technology as a way to more tightly bind customers to their respective services.

Aside from eSIM, Apple's new iPhones also support a variety of high-end wireless network technologies, as well as technologies specific to select wireless network operators. For example, Apple's new iPhones support T-Mobile's 600 MHz spectrum band, which is a critical development for T-Mobile as the carrier works to expand its coverage via that band. Further, the phones also support Sprint's HPUE technology, which is designed to improve the reach of the operator's 2.5 GHz spectrum via technology in phones. 

On its site, Apple also boasts that its iPhones support "Gigabit-class LTE" with 4x4 MIMO and LAA. The inclusion of LAA technology is notable considering carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile are using LAA technology to essentially improve customers' speeds by leveraging unlicensed spectrum in addition to licensed spectrum.

Apple also announced new Watches at its media event today. The company said its new iPhones will sport faster processing speeds and bigger screens, alongside improved camera technology.

Article updated Sept. 12 with additional information and commentary, and then again on Sept. 13 to change Sierra's comments..

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