Travel tech update: The SIM card's past its use by date - Rusty Compass travel blog

Travel tech update: The SIM card's past its use by date

| 04 Jun 2014
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04 Jun 2014

The locked phone was the telcos' first attempt at blocking consumer choice. The SIM card is their final anti-competitive weapon.

If you travel internationally and you want to stay connected with your phone and mobile broadband, you have two bad choices; you can cop the nasty roaming charges of your usual telco, or you can pick up a new prepaid SIM card in each new country you visit.

I've been opting for the latter over the past few years.

Getting hold of a local SIM card at airports has become fairly straightforward. So far this year, I've managed it without much trouble at airports and land border crossings in Australia, the UK, France, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.

The problem is that you usually end up buying a SIM from the first company that you find. You don't get to check the offerings of multiple telcos to find the plan the suits best.

Recently on arrival at Heathrow airport, I discovered that, in their perpetual magnanimity, telcos have devised special products for the exploitation of the vulnerable newly arrived tourist. The prepaid SIM cards for sale in vending machines in the airport terminal offered plans that were confusing or more expensive and with fewer options (like data), than what is available at retail shops on the High St.

SIM card vending machines at Heathrow. Best deals?
Photo: Mark Bowyer SIM card vending machines at Heathrow. Best deals?
SIM card vending machines at Heathrow. Best deals?
Photo: Mark Bowyer SIM card vending machines at Heathrow. Best deals?

The real problem with all this is the SIM card. I currently have five of them on the go. And these increasingly minute and easily lost pieces of plastic erect huge walls between consumers and their easy access to competitive phone and data plans.

SIM cards hurt all consumers but they hit travellers especially hard.

Each time I go through the tedious process of cracking open my iPhone to change a SIM card, I find myself wondering how in the twenty plus years of progress in mobile phone technology, we're still tethered to this anachronistic little anti-competitive tab.

Surely by now, it's time to liberate our phones from the SIM and allow consumers to use a unique ID as the identifier from which we negotiate our arrangements with phone companies?

I'm guessing phone manufacturers would be very ready to cooperate since SIM cards must be a pain in the butt for them too.

So why do we still have SIM cards?

I don't know for sure but it can't be about technology or security. SIM cards themselves impose very real security problems.

Telcos seem to be the only parties to benefit from the anti-competitive impacts of SIM cards. And if the opportunism of call and data roaming charges are anything to go by, I'd be thinking that the telcos have a very strong motive for holding on to them.

Just imagine the new choices travellers (and all consumers) would have in a SIM free world. You could jump off a plane, open a listing of local telcos and flick through their product offerings until you find one that suits. No more nasty bills for roaming, no more regrets about signing up with the wrong telco  and no more black spots without internet and phone services on arrival in new cities - when you often need calls and maps the most.

I'm guessing telcos won't be rushing to address the SIM problem.

They've been busy of late hampering efforts to mandate kill switches on mobile phones (as they tried to block the release of unlocked phones). Kill switches are designed to render stolen phones useless. But the soaring rate of phone theft equals lucrative insurance and new phone sale revenues for telcos.

If they can get away with that level of brazen anti-consumer action, I don't expect them to embrace a SIM free world any time soon. But time might not be on their side. There are hints of a post SIM world in Apple's newly released iOS8 mobile operating system. It can't come soon enough.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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