Many high streets and other physical retail spaces have seen their businesses decimated by Covid 19 pandemic lockdowns, in most places around the world. Very few countries have escaped this phenomenon, which came on top of an already struggling retail sector in some major world economies. Perhaps ironically, some of the retailers hardest hit by this loss in business are mobile telecoms providers.

In March 2020, major provider T-Mobile announced that it was to close up to 80% of its retail outlets, as footfall had already dropped to unacceptably low levels globally; this at the very start of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Meanwhile, in the same months, Verizon announced the closure of its outlets on Sundays, and reduction of both hours and employees for the rest of the week.

SIM registration and ID verification

One of several ironies in this situation is the great upsurge in the use of mobile devices caused by the pandemic. Not only were millions of people urged to work from home, but many millions more simultaneously looked to mobile devices to stay in touch with friends and family they could suddenly no longer meet with physically. For telecoms providers (also known as telcos), this situation has proved to be extremely frustrating.

Extra demand for mobile services should have been good news for telcos, but they were having to close the only means at their disposal of onboarding new customers. This is because of the need for customers to purchase and register SIMs.

In many countries, buying a new SIM requires the purchaser to provide an approved photograph in order to verify their identity; some countries’ governments issue these photos. For this form of ID verification to work, however, the customer has to be physically present when making the purchase. As of March 2020, this was no longer possible for millions of potential consumers.

Wider distribution and remote onboarding

The solution to this problem of demand and supply seems to be twofold. Firstly, telcos have already spread their supply chains into physical spaces where they previously did not reach. These include unmanned kiosks, where customers can by a SIM and register it later. Similarly, telcos are increasingly renting space at airports, so that passengers can take a SIM with them, either to use in-flight or at their new destination.

In both cases, final registration is achieved after purchase using online verification. Photographic ID is still necessary, but this can also be in the form of video or interactive engagement, which are already being rolled out throughout the digital verification industry. In fact, by making use of these latest techniques, registering a new SIM will in some cases be made more secure than before.

The coming of the eSIM

Another step forward in the remote onboarding of new telecoms customers is the eSIM. Google and Apple now produce devices which come with a non-removable SIM. Once the customer has verified their ID securely online, they can make use of the device’s eSIM functionality on the move. This can be to change service providers, or to use local networks in different countries, thus avoiding roaming fees.