AT&T, Verizon tried to subvert a technology Apple embraces

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Apple watch
An eSIM is far smaller than a standard one, and much more flexible. But not if some carriers get their way.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

The Department of Justice is investigating whether AT&T and Verizon colluded to subvert the primary goal of electronic SIMs. This new tech makes it easy to switch between service providers, something to two largest wireless carriers apparently wanted to prevent. 

Apple uses an eSIM in the Apple Watch Series 3. And last year this company formally complained to the DoJ that the two carriers were pressuring an international standards body to make an anticompetitive change to this emerging tech. 

SIM and eSIM

The SIM card was originally designed to be easily swapped out. Someone could change the carrier their phone uses simply by popping out one SIM and sliding in another. SIM slots are a standard part of iPhone and most other cellular devices.

But that’s not practical with something as small as an Apple Watch. The slot would take up too much room. So the electronic SIM was born. 

An eSIM is a non-removable version of the traditional SIM card. It stores the user’s international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) and its associated authentication key. Because it doesn’t get removed, it can be tiny. It’s actually one-hundredth of the size of a standard SIM card.

AT&T and Verizon vs. eSIM

Responding to Apple’s request, the Justice Department brought this issue up with  AT&T, Verizon, and the GSMA, a trade group of mobile network operators responsible for the eSIM standard. 

The question being investigated is whether the two most powerful U.S. carriers tried to pressure the GSMA into modifying the eSIM standard to their advantage, according to The New York Times. The goal was to enable a carrier to lock an eSIM to its own network, preventing the user from switching to a rival. Such a change would benefit AT&T and Verizon the most, as they have the lion’s share of subscribers.

The investigation is just beginning, so no conclusions have been reached.