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Apple’s Quiet Attempt to Shake Up Wireless Carriers Could Benefit Us All

Apple’s SIM card that lets you switch wireless carriers on the fly could lead to cheaper communications.
October 17, 2014

If you happened to pore over the details added to Apple’s website yesterday about its new iPads, you might have noticed that models with cellular capabilities include something interesting on the wireless front. They use a special SIM card - the tiny card that allows your device to connect to a carrier’s network - called Apple SIM. And unlike SIM cards in use today, it is not locked to a single carrier.

You will be able to use a setting in iOS to quickly switch from carrier to carrier right on the iPad, if you are using a pay-as-you-go plan, rather than swapping out the card for each switch as you usually would.

Apple points out a few benefits of this, saying:

“Whenever you need it, you can choose the plan that works best for you — with no long-term commitments. And when you travel, you may also be able to choose a data plan from a local carrier for the duration of your trip.”

To start, you will be able to choose from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint in the U.S., and EE in the U.K.

That’s nice for travelers, but as a number of folks are pointing out, what’s more interesting is the impact this could have on wireless data competition and prices if more carriers are added to the mix. For instance, if you see that a carrier that’s supported by your Apple SIM is having a sale on a short-term data plan, you might switch to that carrier for a bit. Then, when another carrier has a good deal, you might move over to them, and so on. That could force wireless providers to be more competitive.

Things would get even more interesting if, as I suspect, the Apple SIM is eventually added to the iPhone (and, perhaps, similarly flexible SIMs appear for other smartphones as well). Not only would it make it easier to move from one carrier to another, but it could also make it more affordable for people all over the world to communicate.

Given that the Apple SIM seems like a really intriguing technology that could change the wireless industry, I asked Apple why the company didn’t mention the feature during the its iPad news event Thursday in Cupertino (see “Requiem for an iPad Forced Into Retirement”). Apple did not respond.

It could take several years for any of this to really get going. For now, it’s more of an intriguing footnote to Apple’s refresh of its iPad line, and it could be tricky to get support from a lot of carriers for the idea. Apple is extremely dependent on the carriers, which account for much of its iPhone sales and subsidize their cost to consumers.

That said, Apple does have a lot of influence over wireless carriers. It even convinced Cingular Wireless (which then became a part of AT&T) to agree to sell the first iPhone without even setting eyes on the device. Perhaps it can come up with a way to convince the wireless companies to get on board for the Apple SIM, too.

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