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Real-Time Provisioning of SIM Cards: A Boon to GSM Operators

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Dan BakerThe SIM card is that wonderful invention that allows you to transfer your identity from one GSM mobile device to another.

Flexibility was the reason SIM cards were conceived, yet ironically, as the wireless market has evolved, the pre-programming of SIM cards is now a major industry bottleneck because it restricts what you can offer the customer. However, a new capability has come on the market – software-controlled configuration of SIM cards – and it’s now revolutionizing the way GSM operators activate phones.

Here to discuss this issue is Simo Isomaki, vice president of dynamic OSS solutions at Comptel, who has launched its Dynamic SIM Management solution to address the problem.

Dan Baker: Simo, a good starting point would be to explain the process that a typical operator goes through today to manage its SIM cards.

Comptel's Simo IsomakiSimo Isomaki: Sure, Dan. Here’s how it currently works at most prepaid operators.

SIM cards are pre-programmed with telephone numbers, tariff plans and the pricing of voice calls. Things like international calling and roaming are also enabled. All of these things are fixed when the SIM card is ordered from the SIM manufacturer. The end result is you’ve sent resellers an inventory of SIM cards with fixed settings baked in at a SIM factory three months ago.

So what happens if you want to change those settings? Well, you have to take all the SIM cards from the reseller chain and repackage them with new configurations. As a practical matter, most operators don’t do that. They simply order new cards from the SIM factory. So, basically if it cost them five euros apiece to produce a SIM package with all of the associated materials, it was thrown away, and a new one was ordered and sent to the reseller chain. 

Now all of this takes a lot of time, but let’s say a competitor launches an aggressive market campaign that will deal a big blow to your market share. What can you do? Well, you’ll have to wait a few weeks for new SIMs to arrive – SIM cards with new tariffs and calling plans aimed to neutralize the competitor’s threat.

DB: It’s a serious issue to be sure. How does your solution address the problems of pre-programmed SIM cards?

SI: What our Dynamic SIM Management solution basically does is enable the operator to decouple the selection of numbers/services from the logistical process of sending SIMs to the reseller chains. The initial selection of phone numbers and features can now be done in real time. Rather than deal with a baked-in configuration, the operator has a virtual dialogue with the user over the Web, provisioning the SIM card settings when the phone is first activated.  

The beauty of this is the operator can offer a wide choice of product packages, value-added services, payment options – even a vanity telephone number.

Churn is pretty intense in the prepaid market, so anything you can do to personalize a user’s services and give them what they consider useful is a bonus. Vanity phone numbers is one way to do that. There are quite a few markets in the world where vanity phone numbers are quite attractive and create a sticky factor – it’s especially good in those markets where the numbers can’t be ported to a competitor yet.

Most of the operators also feature value-added services attractive to their market. For instance, in the Middle East, one of the hottest services is the notification that it’s time to pray. The user would receive an SMS or an instant message five minutes before it is time for the Muslim religious prayer. 

That subscribed service costs you about $2 (U.S.) a month, and it’s nice to be able to offer that at activation time. Services like these are often offered as “first month free" knowing that the odds are very good that people will stay subscribed after month one.

DB: How does SIM activation work from a customer experience point of view?

SI: Well, after you insert the SIM card in your phone, you turn on your phone, and the dialogue happens automatically for you – it’s a self-service experience.

This represents a dramatic cost reduction for the service provider. And when you consider that the customer is able to tailor the offering to his/her needs, it can also be a big boost for long-term loyalty and satisfaction.

Of course, our provisioning software on the back-end is activating all the service definitions the user personalized for himself/herself. It’s all done in real time. And once the user reboots his device, he’s ready to rock and roll.

One of the cool aspects of this is that it’s opened up the door for marketing to dream up all sorts of real-time promotions. For instance, I could run a specific campaign today that offers a special 10 percent discount on, let's say, a mobile broadband service bundle. However, tomorrow I could change the configuration on the back-end so no discount would be applied anymore.

Some of our operator customers are joking about how they plan to run a Christmas Eve campaign, a Christmas Day campaign, a the second Christmas Day campaign and a New Year campaign where you would have different types of services, discounted at different kinds of bundles. Outrageous? Maybe, but it’s all enabled because you can now modify SIM configurations on the fly.

DB: I can see how this is a wonderful benefit in the prepaid market. But how about postpaid accounts? Any benefit for them?

SI:  Well, it’s true. Prepaid is where you can show the most immediate benefit. However, the online configuration of the phone is quite helpful in the postpaid world too.

Typically, a postpaid customer needs to go to a retail store or a point of sale to buy SIM cards. But if you don’t have to pre-program anything ahead of time, some options open up for you such as selling the SIM cards at a kiosk, a vending machine, etc.

Once again, decoupled configuration from the SIM card, the point of sale doesn’t need to be a place that understands telecom. You can sell SIMs at a grocery store, convenience store or any retail outlet really. The store sells the cards for a small profit and all the technicalities and difficult decisions about what kind of packages to get are handled on a Web interface.

Simo Isomäki is the vice president of Comptel Dynamic OSS solutions at Comptel Corporation. With 10+ years of experience in telecom and BSS/OSS, Simo has a broad range of expertise in telecom business processes, OSS/BSS systems, standards (e.g. TM Forum (eTOM, SID, TAM), 3GPP, IETF, ITU-T, GSMA) and telecom software architectures.

Dan Baker is the principal market synthesizer and co-founder of Technology Research Institute (TRI). He is also research director of a new online community, the Revenue Assurance Roundtable.

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