As the first standards-compliant 5G cellular devices are on the edge of release, it might be too late to change the key technologies inside them. But an association representing 90 percent of the global SIM industry is now urging cellular carriers to adopt a new 5G SIM card before they launch 5G services, a move that promises to enhance network security, user privacy, and battery life for the next generation of mobile devices.
The nonprofit SIMalliance suggests that practical and timing considerations will push carriers to consider three different types of 5G SIM cards: “transitional,” “recommended,” and “low power” alternatives. Transitional cards can be thought of as basic keys to let early 5G devices join 5G networks, including new 5G security protocols and secure temporary keys, plus support for over-the-air SIM updates and app management, but offering little else to improve the quality of a user’s experience. As the word transitional suggests, SIMalliance sees this sort of card as being used only in the earliest stage of 5G adoption by carriers.
By comparison, SIMalliance’s recommended 5G SIM promises to leverage the full power of the 5G standard, and be the “most future-proof” option. In addition to supporting enhanced 5G security, this SIM would protect the identities of 5G users using encryption, support multiple quality of experience features, and use device-specific resource optimization tools to prioritize multimedia content and local roaming performance.
In an era where GPS will be dramatically improved and devices will constantly be streaming data, 5G subscriber privacy is a major concern — but only for part of the cellular industry. By comparison, companies and governments alike have agreed that the 5G standard must enable stronger security than 4G, explaining why security is included in the basic transitional card and privacy features aren’t.
A low-power 5G SIM would be a variation on the recommended card, designed specifically for internet of things (IoT) devices. It would have most of the recommended card’s features, but omit the subscriber privacy options while adding multiple protocols to support extended battery life. Next-generation 5G IoT sensors and devices are promising 10-year battery life by aggressively managing their use of small, quickly transmitted packets.
In addition to containing device-specific personalization details that would reduce network communications, this card could negotiate data activity levels with the device to conserve energy, and be capable of storing its status before switching off. The card could also be locked to the device or device type, preventing a traffic light SIM card with unlimited service from being stolen and placed in a phone.
“A SIM is the only platform which can be used to secure 5G network access according to the 5G standardization body, 3GPP,” explained SIMalliance chairman Remy Cricco. “On behalf of the SIM industry, SIMalliance advocates only one type of 5G SIM which promotes the highest levels of security and functionality in 5G networks. By deploying the SIMalliance Recommended 5G SIM at 5G launch, MNOs will offer their customers the best possible experience, services, security and privacy, while optimizing their investments and positioning themselves to realise the full potential of 5G as future use cases and possibilities unfold.”
If you’re interested in a deeper dive on the technical features expected to be supported in 5G SIMs, a full description of the 3GPP Release 15 5G SIM Card proposals is available here. It remains to be seen whether “recommended” 5G SIM cards will be able to arrive in the first wave of 5G smartphones expected in early 2019, or whether carriers will continue with transitional alternatives for some time.