Why you shouldn’t use consumer SIM cards for IoT projects

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“Normal” consumer SIMs vs IoT SIMs: which is best for your project?

Why do people do it? Ease. Imagine you’re on a high after an all-night coding session. Finally broken through that problem that’s been bugging you for weeks. Now you know it works. It’s ready to be demo’d. Which is good, because you have potential investors lined up that need to be impressed.

The final piece of the puzzle is connectivity. In this case, for a tablet. It needs a SIM card so you can demo the user experience.

What do you do? Fastest solution is to put your coat on and run down to the corner shop to buy a pay as you go SIM card. And that might be fine for a demonstration. It does the job.

For now.

But in reality, consumer SIMs are just not a good solution for business.

Let us explain.

What is the alternative to a “normal” SIM card?

IoT SIM cards.

If you hold a consumer SIM in one hand and an IoT SIM in the other, majority of the time you won’t see a difference. You’d be forgiven for just assuming it’s a marketing tactic designed to get more money out of you.

The reality is very different.

Getting an IoT SIM means a lot more than buying into a marketing gimmick. There are several critical advantages that you get using a dedicated IoT SIM (and more specifically, the services associated with it) that you don’t get with a regular data-only consumer SIM. We will talk in more detail about each of those benefits but to summarise the key advantages are:

  • Reduced total cost of ownership
  • Greater security and resilience
  • Greater control and visibility
  • Better coverage and more flexibility

Whilst the convenience of a consumer SIM might seem tempting to start with, it isn’t a long-term solution. If you are serious about making your project a success, and don’t want to get slowed down once things really start to accelerate, making the right choice from the start will pay off down the line.

Physical differences between IoT SIMs and Consumer SIMs

Let’s start with the physical differences in the SIM card themselves. In many cases IoT SIMs are physically identical to consumer SIMs and you have a comparable choice of form factor (mini, micro and nano). The exception is if you want to embed your SIM in the device it’s going to be difficult to get hold of a consumer MFF2 and working with an IoT SIM provider is going to be your easiest option.

Whilst most of the time the form factors are similar, there is also a specific classification of “ruggedised” SIM cards designed for IoT applications. Known as “industrial-grade” these SIMs are designed to be more resilient and reliable in more extreme conditions such as low or high temperatures. They are more durable and if your device is likely to be exposed to any kind of extreme condition are worth considering.  

Cost of IoT SIMs vs Consumer SIMs?

Cost and simplicity are probably the main reasons why people often opt for a consumer SIM to get their project moving. And whilst there can be an initial cost advantage going for a consumer, data only SIM, this quickly gets outweighed by the vastly higher total cost of ownership and long-term complexity created by using consumer SIMs for IoT projects.

Sure, you can buy a multi-GB data consumer SIM at a relatively low per-mb rate but you don’t get any flexibility in how you use that data. That data bundle is associated with that specific SIM so if your data bundle is vastly outsized for your requirement per SIM, and you need to deploy multiple SIMs all of a sudden the initial cost advantage can disappear pretty quick. Compare this to a customised IoT data plan that allows you to buy exactly the right amount of data and balance out your usage across your whole deployment so you never “waste” data. One SIM might go over its usage, another under, but no big deal because you can just balance it out across your plan. No wasted spend.

You can still buy your data at a very competitive per-MB rate, but right-size your data plan so it actually suits your specific requirements. This also means that scaling up is much more cost-efficient. You don’t need to go out and buy a big bundle of data at a one-off cost. You just add incrementally to your existing IoT plan and spread the cost across the lifetime of the device.

And then there is the other end of the data usage scale, low usage. If your devices only use a little data a consumer SIMs make even less sense (but you probably already know this)! IoT providers are going to offer you customised, low-usage data plans helping you keep cost to an absolute minimum.

The contract is another area where IoT SIMs provide significant cost benefits. IoT SIMs are usually offered with a variety of different contract types to maximise flexibility, they also offer much great flexibility in-contract with the ability to pause a “subscription” mid-contract and restart it when needed. Many IoT connectivity providers also offer a “test mode” which gives you effectively free connectivity during the testing process for your devices before they actually deploy. For example, if you want to test your devices at point of manufacture but before they are deployed, having the flexibility to do this without needing to immediately start using your data in your plan can have significant advantages when scaling up.

These are just a few of the direct cost benefits of an IoT SIM but there is a load of other factors that indirectly influence the TCO of an IoT SIM vs a consumer SIM. Keep reading to find out what they are.

Coverage of consumer SIMs vs IoT SIMs

One of the most obvious benefits of IoT SIMs is that they are likely to offer you far greater coverage than an off-the-shelf consumer SIM. Now, dependent on your use case this may not be that important, if you know exactly where you need coverage and you already know the best network then, ok, might be alright. However, what happens if you want to expand, perhaps adding new regions, countries or even continents? Well very quickly your consumer SIM is going to be a huge limitation. There is of course also a reliability risk created by single network connectivity but we will address that in the next section.

With an IoT SIM you get access to multi-network international coverage on a single SIM. This means that if you have anything close to international ambition for your business, picking an IoT SIM from the start is going to offer huge advantages very quickly. It will just make scaling up a whole lot easier and faster.

IoT SIMs also offer access to dedicated IoT networks such as NB-IoT or CAT-M which you simply will not get on a consumer SIM. If you are using a low-power device and want the most optimised solution that also keeps costs to a minimum, then this should be a serious consideration. You can learn more about these “LPWAN” technologies over on our other blog, but needless to say, if you think one of these technologies is the right choice for you, an IoT SIM it must be.  

Reliability of consumer SIMs vs IoT SIMs

One of the main benefits of using IoT SIM cards for your business is the reliability a dedicated IoT connectivity solution offers. Firstly, an IoT SIM will be managed via a dedicated IoT connectivity management platform (CMP). The CMP is a powerful tool that gives you a huge amount of control and visibility into what each SIM is doing, at all times. Not only can all of the data and analytics help you optimise the performance of your deployment, it also makes it quicker to recognise when something goes wrong and gives you a load of trouble shooting tools to help resolve issues. Being able to do all of this remotely means that your deployments will be more consistent, more reliable, better performing, and significantly cheaper to operate by reducing the costs involved in physical site visits to diagnose and fix connectivity issues.  

Another advantage of working with IoT SIMs is if you do find an issue that you can’t fix in-house, your IoT SIM will be backed up by a dedicated support team with actual IoT expertise. They will help you troubleshoot and have access to a huge volume of both information and experience to get you back up and running quickly. You are very, very unlikely to get this kind of support using a normal SIM.

The final point on reliability is the multi-network capabilities of IoT SIMs. IoT SIMs commonly offer access to multiple networks so you can get connected to the one offering the best connection quality in your specific deployment location. They are also often backed by the ability to configure the SIM to automatically prioritise network quality when connecting or switching between networks. This means that you can improve reliability without having to manually take any action.

Security of consumer SIMs vs IoT SIMs

Security is probably the area where IoT SIMs offer the greatest advantages over normal consumer SIMs. Of course there are lots of reasons to care about the security of your data, not least of which is the cost of a breach and the resulting disruption and reputational damage. When you are at the early stage of a project it’s easy to dismiss security as a problem for later, but in our experience that is a very bad idea. It’s much easier to keep things secure than it is to retrospectively make them secure if you haven’t got a good foundation.

The IoT SIM provides this secure foundation for your connected devices. They are usually on a private IP block behind a secure and constantly monitored, managed IoT network. They utilise multiple tools to keep your data safe as it transits from device to endpoint such as IPSec networking offering a secure, private tunnel for your data. You can get secure access directly to your devices for monitoring and maintenance without ever exposing them to attack. And, you can see exactly what’s happening, across all your connections, at all times on the CMP making it much easier to spot anomalous behaviour and take action to resolve it before it becomes a problem.  

These benefits can not be understated and getting this in place from the get-go will pay dividends down the line, removing security as a barrier to scaling and reducing the risk of costly and damaging security incidents.

Now you could say, Pelion is an IoT connectivity provider so of course we are going to advocate for IoT SIMs but we encourage you to challenge us. Think you can get a better solution for what you are trying to do with a normal consumer SIM, tell us, and find out what we can do. Or, just simply test our full service out for free using our free trial program and see for yourself.

The choice is yours.








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