Big U.S. carriers now support eSIM, but they’re not marketing it

Embedded SIM cards promise to make it much simpler for consumers to connect to their wireless carrier of choice and to switch to a different wireless carrier if they choose.

But consumers seem largely unaware of the technology.

eSIM is used regularly by operators within the Internet of Things (IoT) space because it makes it so much easier to provision myriad IoT devices. Although operators in the U.S. are beginning to support eSIM for smartphones, they aren’t marketing it.

For instance, as part of its permission to purchase Sprint, T-Mobile agreed to support eSIM, which it now does. But the instructions for using it look a bit daunting.

And T-Mobile definitely does not mention that eSIM will make it easier for customers to switch to another provider. T-Mobile touts eSIM as a convenience for anyone who wants to use both their work and personal numbers on a single smartphone or for those customers who want to set up their phone with an international carrier for extended stays outside the U.S. Its website adds, “Plus, AT&T and Verizon customers can activate a separate T-Mobile plan on their existing smartphone.”

Google’s mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) service, Google Fi is an eSIM-based service.

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The MVNO service rides on T-Mobile’s national network as well as the regional network of US Cellular. SIMs for Google Fi are sold at Best Buy and Target. But the company also uses eSIM technology for customers who have a Pixel phone. Google Fi brags that customers can set up the service “from their couch.” But in reality, the set-up looks a bit complicated based on Google Fi’s Help Page.

Both AT&T and Verizon also have webpages that provide some information about their support of eSIM.

Global Data analyst Lynnette Luna said the process for consumers to use eSIM is complicated, and it usually involves scanning a QR code on their computer.

“The most streamlined installation (and most impressive) I have experienced is on Visible,” said Luna. “The app automatically detects you have an eSIM-enabled smartphone, you enter the IMEI number, and it tells you whether that phone is available and downloads the eSIM right through the app. The user doesn’t have to do anything other than click on buttons.”

RELATED: Verizon’s Visible adds 5G, eSIM support

Luna said, “The vast majority of subscribers in the U.S. buy a smartphone from their carrier, and all of the U.S. carriers do support Apple’s eSIM, so a customer can choose to sign up for service that way. It’s not easy as a customer needs to be savvy and look for how to do it on the carrier websites. It’s not something the big carriers promote.”
eSIM awareness, globally

Giesecke+Devrient (G+D) is a German company that supplies eSIM management software. With its AirOn software, mobile device owners can activate their services securely over the air, and operators can set up their customers' profiles and manage the devices within their network.

Andreas Morawietz, senior marketing manager at G+D, said Europe is a big region for eSIM. And Japanese operators use eSIM quite a lot for tablets, but not so much for smartphones.

G+D conducted some research with GSMA in 17 major markets around the world and found that only about 20% of consumers, on average, are aware of eSIM. The highest awareness was in Italy with 26% of consumers aware of eSIM. Germany, Sweden and Japan have 22% awareness; the U.S. (17%); and Canada (12%).

GSMA chart

“This consumer awareness is something we are working with operators on to improve,” said Soren Haubold, senior strategic marketing manager for mobile security at G+D. “It is somehow a demand and supply question.” He said eSIM “really is a high improvement” in the phone set-up process, compared to the traditional practice of inserting a physical SIM card.

According to the G+D and GSMA research, eSIM awareness is highest among the 25–34 age group, among 5G users, and among smartwatch owners.

The research report said, “While consumer awareness of eSIM is still generally low, some of the interviewed companies highlighted a correlation between operators’ promotional activity for eSIM and volumes of eSIM activations on their platforms, meaning that consumers are more likely to adopt eSIM if operators promote it.”