IoT & Embedded Technology Blog

MWC 2023: Satellite IoT & eSIMs

by Steve Hoffenberg | 3/6/2023

VDC’s IoT staff was back in Barcelona for MWC for the first time since 2019. This year’s attendance continued to rebound from the COVID pandemic, and was 88,500 participants, compared to 61,000 in 2022, after the 2019 peak of nearly 109,500.

Fira Barcelona convention center

Outside the Fira Barcelona convention center at MWC 2023

The hottest overall topic at the show was O-RAN (Open Radio Access Network), enabling increasing portions of cellular infrastructure to run on standardized hardware both at base stations and in the cloud. This will allow carriers to pivot away from proprietary platforms that have effectively locked them into systems from Ericsson, Huawei, or Nokia, and enable mixing and matching of equipment across a wide range of vendors.

Far Above The Clouds
Among the significant subgroup of MWC vendors and attendees concerned with IoT use cases, the focus was far above the telco base stations and clouds, way up high to satellite services. According to the International Telecommunications Union, in 2021 cellular services covered areas where about 95% of the world's population live. But IoT devices don’t only reside where people do. Due to the concentrations of people in urban areas, and the vast oceans covering much of the planet, only about one-quarter of the total land mass and one-tenth of the earth’s total surface area are served by terrestrial cellular systems.

Broader-area communications services via high-orbit geostationary (GEO) satellites have been available for several years, but they have been cost-prohibitive for all but high value applications. In 2022, Echostar launched a lower cost LoRa direct connectivity service for IoT using its GEO satellite covering Europe. Satellite operator Intelsat’s Flex services have connected its GEO network to IoT devices via an external satellite modem. At this year’s MWC, Deutsche Telekom (DT) announced a partnership to integrate Intelsat’s FlexEnterprise service into DT’s IoT offerings.

A newer generation of smaller low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites has begun to enable practical IoT services for a much wider range of use cases. Iridium, for example, has offered LEO IoT connectivity services through its Iridium Edge external devices. Similarly, satellite operator Globalstar offers LEO connectivity through both internally and externally mounted options. These options, however, use proprietary protocols to connect between the devices and the satellites.

These previous offerings lacked the ability for cellular devices to connect directly to satellites. The mobile telecommunications standards group 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) uses the term non-terrestrial networks (NTN) to refer to any network service that—as the name implies—is not ground-based. For the past few years, 3GPP has defined two standards for cellular NTN: IoT-NTN, and NR-NTN (New Radio NTN). IoT-NTN is for narrow bandwidth applications and is an extension of the preexisting NB-IoT standard. NR-NTN will be for higher bandwidth applications and will support streaming video.

IoT-NTN’s main use in smartphone communications is to enable SMS text messaging to and from remote locations, but IoT devices with existing NB-IoT modules and antennas will also be able to use it to communicate directly via satellite for applications such as asset tracking and remote sensing.

At MWC, Chipmaker MediaTek demonstrated IoT-NTN to GEO satellites, and NR-NTN to LEO satellites (due to LEO’s lower latency), although commercial deployment of NR-NTN is still a few years out.

Also at MWC, Spain-based carrier Telefónica announced a partnership with satellite operator Sateliot to offer IoT-NTN services and integrate them natively with Telefónica’s KITE IoT platform. Sateliot is in the process of deploying its LEO satellites.

Parth Trivedi, CEO of NTN network aggregator and orchestrator Skylo, told VDC that for roaming devices, the company has partnered with Deutsche Telekom to seamlessly handoff communications between DT’s terrestrial cellular and Skylo’s IoT-NTN satellite networks as needed. Skylo does not operate its own satellites, but currently partners with Inmarsat and other operators for GEO satellites and also plans to partner with LEO operators in the future.

Since the dawn of modern mobile phones, SIM cards (subscriber identity modules) have been the standard plastic pieces that associate a user’s mobile phone or other cellular device with a profile including specific telephone number and service carrier. eSIM is the subsequent generation that moves the same information to an embedded chip that is soldered onboard, doing away with plastic card and the connector or tray assembly. Mobile network operators, however, can charge a fee to provision and activate eSIM profiles.

Among other things, eSIMs allow the cellular profile information to be updated over the air, without any need to physically swap out a part. eSIMs first started appearing in smart watches with the LTE version of the Apple Watch in 2017, but most early eSIM-enabled phones also included a conventional SIM card connector. In the vast majority of those early eSIM-enabled phones, the eSIM went unused. But when Apple announced in 2022 that its iPhone 14 would only support eSIM, it forced users and cellular carriers to deal with eSIM on a much larger scale, essentially paving the way for every other eSIM device to come.

At MWC 2023, eSIM was in practically every new phone model. We anticipate that by the end of the year it will become the de facto SIM technology in new cellular IoT device designs.

The leading provider of SIMs is Thales (which acquired Gemalto and its SIM business in 2019). At MWC, Thales executives briefed VDC on the company’s latest services to support eSIMs. Thales IoT Instant Connect provisions devices with an initial bootstrap profile, allowing them upon first boot to connect to an available network (via cellular or Wi-Fi) to subsequently download a local service provider’s SIM profile. This can allow a single product SKU to be distributed globally. Thales Adaptive Connect is a service to simplify automatic provisioning and updating of eSIM profiles to IoT devices that may be unattended or not have a user interface. Thales IoT SAFE can utilize a separate secure domain within an eSIM as a secure element to, for example, store encryption keys or perform cryptographic operations. IoT SAFE can be used to establish secure TLS communications required for the remote provisioning of eSIM profiles. Combined, Adaptive Connect and IoT SAFE can enable IoT devices to be shipped without any factory installed eSIM profile.

Wireless module maker Telit acquired the former Gemalto module business unit from Thales in January 2023. The combined entity goes by the new name Telit Cinterion, and it is using Thales’ remote eSIM provisioning services for its modules. Telit Cinterion is also pivoting its business from being primarily a hardware supplier to include more “as-a-service” solutions. Telit Cinterion told VDC that all its new module designs are currently eSIM, although many customers are still buying existing module designs that utilize traditional SIM cards.

Lastly, just prior to MWC, chip and module maker Sequans announced that it had partnered with Thales to develop an integrated SIM (iSIM), which will be the next generation technology that integrates SIM functionality directly into other silicon chips, eliminating the need for a separate chip as used in eSIM. Samples are testing now, with commercial iSIM availability expected in 2024. Further, Sequans also announced a partnership with global IoT connectivity service provider Eseye to preprovision iSIMs and enable customers to swap carrier profiles as needed.

With iSIMs already on the horizon, a key question is how long eSIMs will preside as the dominant SIM technology. eSIM isn’t even there yet, but it’s well on the way.