IoT Blog
IoT Blog

What Type of IoT SIM and IoT Services Do I Need for Cellular IoT Connectivity?

by Ross Gray, Vice President, Product Connectivity Solutions

Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), transportation and logistics companies, utilities, oil & gas companies, and other organizations increasingly want to use the IoT to connect to assets dispersed across a factory, campus, service area, supply chain, region, or even around the world. 

Reliable, “always-on” wireless connections to these industrial machines, shipping containers, smart meters, medical devices and other assets allows these organizations to deploy IoT applications that let them know where these assets are, how they are being used, if they need maintenance, and other information that they can use to lower costs, reduce equipment downtime, increase employee productivity, and improve customer experiences.

Wi-Fi and other short-range communications technologies are not well-suited for this type of connectivity. These technologies do not provide coverage over large geographic areas, can have difficulty connecting to assets that are located inside buildings, underground, or in rural areas, and are not able to connect to very large numbers of assets in a given area. Wi-Fi also uses large amounts of electricity to transmit data – a particular issue since many assets use battery-powered edge devices to connect to the Internet, and these devices often have to rely on batteries as their sole source of power for their useable life. 

However, long-range cellular technologies based on global standards, like 5G NR, LTE, LTE-M and NB-IoT – are well-suited to provide the connectivity needed for these types of IoT use cases. In particular, unlike Wi-Fi, they provide wide, geographic coverage, making it much easier for companies to insure they have an “always-on” connection to their asset. Devices based on long-range cellular technologies also each have a unique subscriber identity module (SIM). This SIM is a tiny chip that is inserted or embedded in the device, and uniquely identifies the device to the cellular network, and the network to the device, enhancing security.

In addition, Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) cellular technologies, like LTE-M and NB-IoT, can provide even better coverage than other cellular technologies, and connect to devices even if they are located in remote rural areas, inside buildings or underground. These LPWA technologies are also extremely energy efficient, allowing modules, routers, and gateways that use this technology to be powered by a single battery for 10 years or more. 

But if you are using LPWA or other long-range cellular technologies to connect to your assets, you need more than an IoT device like a module, router, or gateway. As mentioned above, you need a SIM card that will identify these devices to the cellular network. You also need service from cellular network providers – just as you need service from these providers to use mobile devices like smartphones. 

This Q&A will examine this other side of the IoT connectivity equation – the IoT SIM card and cellular IoT connectivity services – you need to collect data from assets using cellular technologies like LPWA. By answering questions like “what is the difference between a smartphone SIM and an IoT SIM?” and “what should you look for in a cellular IoT connectivity service” we hope to provide you with a better understanding of what IoT connectivity is, how to get it, and how to ensure you have the IoT connectivity service you need to extract, transmit, and act on asset data in a way that improves your business outcomes.

What is an IoT SIM?

An IoT SIM is really not any different than the SIMs one finds in smartphones, or any other device used to connect to cellular networks. Some are designed to be more rugged than standard SIMs, so they can handle the difficult environmental conditions many IoT devices used for industrial and commercial applications experience. But from a physical and technological standpoint, the same types of SIMs used for IoT devices can be used in smartphones.

What is an eSIM?

Some of IoT devices have embedded SIMs (eSIMs) – SIMs that are embedded into the device during the manufacturing process. While this prevents a device’s owner from replacing the SIM with a new one, it makes it easier to deploy the IoT device, as no SIM needs to be installed when it is in the field. eSIMs are not unique to IoT devices -- smartphones can also have eSIMs? 

Note that, because they can’t be removed, most eSIMs are Global SIMs, (as described in more detail below). This means they can either be manually or automatically configured to connect to different MNO networks than the one they are first assigned to.

What is a Global SIM?

As mentioned above, an IoT SIM can also be multi-carrier or a Global SIM. Global SIMs are not tied to a specific mobile network operator (MNO), and can connect to cellular networks owned and operated by multiple MNOs in the same country, or different countries. 

Some Global SIMs, which are often based on the embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card (eUICC) standard, can automatically detect and connect to another network if the IoT device it is installed in moves and is not able to connect to its primary MNO in a country or region, or if taken out of this country or region into a location where this primary MNO does not provide coverage. 

However, while a Global SIM enables an IoT device to connect to cellular networks from multiple MNOs, unless the device’s owner has contracted for connectivity from a MNO or Virtual Mobile Network Operator (VMNO) that can provide access to networks other than its primary network, the device will not be able to connect to them. 

Like rugged and eSIMs, Global SIMs are not unique IoT devices. What really differentiates an IoT SIM from any other SIM is that rather than being used to provide access to a connectivity service designed to be used by smartphones, it provides access to an IoT connectivity service designed to be used by IoT devices.

What is a cellular IoT connectivity service?

As we note above, what really makes an IoT SIM different than a smartphone SIM is not whether it is global, rugged, or embedded – it is whether it is used with a cellular IoT connectivity service. 

You would not want a smartphone SIM with a connectivity service that offers very low or no 4G LTE or 5G data transmission capabilities, data speeds too slow to watch videos or conduct video calls and the other capabilities you need to take advantage of a smartphone’s features. In the same way, you don’t want an IoT SIM with a connectivity service that does not offer you the capabilities you need to maximize the value of your IoT devices and its IoT applications.

There are a wide variety of different IoT devices and applications however, and depending on the use case, the owners of these devices will want different IoT connectivity capabilities. Nonetheless, generally companies want to deploy IoT applications over a wide area or many countries, if not immediately in the future. In addition, most of these companies are deploying IoT applications that are business-critical, in which losing connectivity to an IoT device in or attached to a smart meter, shipping container, high-value piece of construction equipment or other asset can have serious financial consequences. 

This is why most IoT connectivity service providers offer global or regional coverage from multiple MNOs in a region or in countries around the world. To offer this type of coverage these providers contract with multiple MNOs in a specific region (North America, for example) or with hundreds of MNOs around the world. This allows them to provide connectivity even if an IoT device can connect to its primary MNO in a country, or if the IoT device moves to another country where the MNO does not provide service. 

In order to offer this global or regional coverage, IoT connectivity service providers use eUICC or other types of Global SIMs. They provide these Global SIMs to the IoT device manufacturers or owners, who install them in their devices either during the manufacturing process, or when these devices are being deployed in the field. Alternatively, most IoT connectivity providers have the ability to connect an eUICC or Global SIM that has already been instated in their customers’ IoT devices. 

In addition to global or regional coverage, most IoT connectivity service providers offer access to Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks, like LTE-M and NB-IoT. As mentioned above, these network technologies use less power, have broader coverage, higher capacity, and lower device costs than LTE and 5G NR network technologies, making them particularly well suited for predictive maintenance, asset tracking, smart energy, and many other IoT use cases. 

There are some IoT use cases, like live media streaming and automobile infotainment, that require high data speeds. This is leading many IoT connectivity service providers to supplement their LPWA connectivity services with LTE and 5G NR connectivity services, which provides the higher bandwidth required for these types of IoT use cases. 

What should I look for in an IoT connectivity service?

While global and regional coverage and LPWA network connectivity are the starting points for most IoT connectivity services, there are other capabilities that companies should look for when choosing an IoT connectivity service.

Companies should look for IoT connectivity services that provide them with simplicity, scalability, and security, by offering them: 

A global network operations center: In addition to being able to move IoT devices seamlessly across or between countries without losing connectivity, a key advantage to working with a IoT connectivity provider is having less disruptions to your connectivity, and having a single point of contact if a network disruption or other connectivity issue occurs. IoT service providers with global network operations centers monitor their networks for disruptions, reducing the probability of a connectivity problem occurring. If one does occur, you can directly connect the center to resolve the problem, and get your service restored quickly, wherever your IoT devices are located. 
A robust management platform: Whether you have deployed a couple, dozens, or thousands of IoT devices, you want a cloud-based platform that allows you to manage the SIMs in these devices, as well as monitor, configure, and update the IoT devices themselves. While most IoT connectivity providers offer some type of platform for managing IoT devices that use their service, these platforms differ in the level of functionality they offer and ease of use. You want to ensure your provider offers a platform that makes it easy to manage every aspect of your SIMs and IoT devices.
Smart SIMs: While most Global SIMs can switch between different networks, only a few are “smart” – able to dynamically identify the best network to use in a particular area, providing you with a stronger, more reliable connection by finding multiple routes to multiple networks in real-time. 
Advanced, Multi-Layer Security: Cyberattacks and other security breaches threaten the integrity of your business. Some IoT connectivity providers deploy advanced physical, network and encryption technologies to better protect your IoT data from malicious actors.
Flexible Pricing: The differences between the data connectivity needs of smartphones and IoT devices extend to pricing, where IoT use cases often have very predictable or small amounts of data they need to transmit, and “unlimited talk, text, and data” is not required. You want to work with IoT connectivity providers whose pricing is designed for IoT use cases, while being flexible enough to support changes in your use case and business conditions. For example, does the provider offer free service while your IoT devices are being manufactured and deployed, to ensure they can connect even before you start using them? Do they allow you to track your spending in real time, or offer message or data-based options than can be upgraded, downgraded, suspended or even switched to another IoT connectivity provider as your business needs change?

What are some IoT connectivity service use cases?

Because they are designed to meet the specific needs of IoT customers, practically any IoT connectivity use case can benefit from a performance or cost perspective from using an IoT connectivity service, rather than a MNO’s standard data connectivity service. 

Some IoT use cases that are particularly well suited for IoT connectivity services include:

Fixed and Mobile Industrial Asset Monitoring: Whether an OEM or other industrial manufacturer wants to monitor a machine it built that its customer has installed deep inside its factory, or a leasing company wants to know where a high-value tool is and how much it is being used, IoT connectivity services offer the robust device management, broad coverage, and low cost companies need to maximize the value of IoT applications deployed for these types of asset monitoring use cases.
Smart Grid, Smart Meter, and Pipeline Management: More intermittent and distributed energy resources are being added to the electricity grid every day. Meanwhile water, oil, and gas resources are becoming both more precious and regulated. This is leading utilities, renewable energy, and oil & gas companies to need more real-time data on the generation, distribution, storage and consumption of energy and water resources, if they hope to optimize their operations and keep delivery of these resources to their customers safe and reliable. IoT connectivity services offer them the wide coverage (even in remote areas), as well as the ability to deploy and gather data from large numbers of low-cost smart meters and other sensors. 
Fleet, Cargo, and other Asset Tracking: Just-in-time manufacturing schedules, unexpected supply chain disruptions, and rising customer delivery expectations have made it more important than ever for shippers, fleet managers, and others in the transportation and logistics sector to understand not just where their vehicles, containers, products and other assets are at any given time, but also what condition they are in. IoT connectivity services ‘ability to inexpensively collect location, temperature, and other data from a battery-powered sensor attached to an asset even as this asset crosses multiple borders, or is stored deep inside a warehouse, make them well suited for fleet, cargo, and similar asset tracking use cases.

Where can I learn more about IoT connectivity?

The white papers, eBooks, webinars, blogs and reports below can provide you with more details on IoT connectivity services and related technologies, including eSIMs. 

How to Get Internet of Things Connectivity Right (White Paper)
Secure & Resilient: Meeting Global Connectivity Challenges for the IoT (Ebook)
How to Ensure You Get IoT Connectivity Right! (Webinar)
Why Your Business Needs Cellular IoT Connectivity (Blog)
Business-Critical IoT Connectivity Solutions: Key Management Challenges (Report)
Moving Beyond Consumer SIMs for the IoT (White Paper)

Start with Sierra by contacting us directly to talk about your IoT connectivity needs, and how our Smart Connectivity, Enhanced Carrier Connectivity, and other IoT connectivity services can help you unlock value in today’s connected economy.