Development of eSIM standard halted after allegations arise that AT&T and Verizon colluded to sabotage it

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In yet another example of why American consumers have such little faith in AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the two companies are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice over whether they colluded to sabotage the eSIM standard. An embedded SIM, or eSIM, is a standardized SIM chip that allows users to switch between carriers without changing a SIM card. eSIMs are commonly found in smartwatches but have recently been added to a few smartphones such as the Google Pixel 2. The main benefit of eSIM technology is consumer freedom, which is exactly why certain telecommunication carriers have allegedly sought to block its adoption.

According to the NYTimes, AT&T and Verizon have been accused of working with the GSM Association (GSMA), the organization that is responsible for standardizing the technology used in the mobile telecommunications industry, to “establish standards that would allow them to lock a device to their network even if it had eSIM technology.” The development of such a standard would be antithetical to the benefits of an embedded SIM, and if passed, would effectively sabotage the technology which is poised to be the successor to the SIM card. The NYTimes report claims that the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the alleged collusion after an unnamed carrier and Apple filed a formal complaint.

Representatives from Verizon Wireless and AT&T acknowledged the inquiry by the Justice Department, with a Verizon spokesman telling the NYTimes that the issue was “much ado about nothing.” When reached for comment, the GSMA confirmed the development of the new eSIM standard that would allow for locking a device to a network. The GSMA has issued a statement in response to the story which announced that the organization has halted development of the eSIM standard until the ongoing investigation is completed.

The GSMA is a powerful standard-setting organization. The organization is responsible for creating the Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services (RCS), which is the underlying technology for the new ‘Chat‘ standard by Google. If the allegations against the two largest mobile carriers in the U.S. are true, then the future of eSIM technology may be in jeopardy. In a private meeting, Verizon is said to have called for the changes to the eSIM standard to “prevent theft and fraud.” In my view, if that truly was their reasoning, then there wouldn’t be a need to develop these changes to the eSIM standard in secret. Given the optics of such a change, however, it’s possible that the companies didn’t want to seem to be behind such changes even if it was for consumer protection. We’ll have to wait for the conclusion of the investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice before we pass judgment, though.


Feature image: Embedded SIM in the Google Pixel 2 XL from iFixit’s teardown.

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