The US Justice Department has concluded a two-year investigation into the GSMA’s handling of the eSIM standard after the latter promised to play nice.

The investigation was started because the Antitrust Division thought the eSIM standard was being developed in such a way as to make it difficult for new entrants to the market to compete with the incumbent operators that comprise the GSMA’s membership. Getting rid of the hard SIM theoretically makes it a lot easier for subscribers to change providers as it would only require an OTA update. The prospect of the resulting increased competition presumably alarmed said operators.

According to the Antitrust Division’s investigation, the GSMA and its mobile network operator members used an unbalanced standard-setting process, with procedures that stacked the deck in their favour, to enact an RSP [Remote SIM Provisioning] Specification that included provisions designed to limit competition among networks,” said the DoJ announcement. “When standard-setting organizations are used in an anticompetitive manner, the division stands ready to evaluate that conduct under the antitrust laws and take whatever action is necessary to restore competition.”

It looks like this process was concluded in the right way, with the GSMA volunteering to change its anticompetitive ways sufficiently to placate the DoJ. “In response to the investigation, the GSMA has drafted new standard-setting procedures that will incorporate more input from non-operator members of the mobile communications industry,” says the announcement.

“The new standard-setting process will have a greater likelihood of creating procompetitive benefits for consumers of mobile devices; it will also curb the ability of mobile network operators to use the GSMA standard as a way to avoid new forms of disruptive competition that the embedded SIMs (eSIMs) technology may unleash.”

“I am pleased that the GSMA is ready to use its standard-setting process to create a more consumer-friendly eSIM standard,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim. “The GSMA’s old procedures resulted in certain eSIMs rules that benefitted only its incumbent mobile network operators at the risk of innovation and American consumers.  The new procedures proposed going forward significantly reduce that risk and should result in new innovative offerings for consumers.”

The GSMA’s responding statement, not attributed to any individual, is curt to the point of petulance. “The Justice Department reviewed millions of documents covering a multi-year and complex process to establish common standards for eSIM technologies,” it said. Its Business Review Letter is conclusive that the agency found no violation of antitrust laws.”

There’s no point pouting about it GSMA, if you can’t learn to play nice then you’ll have your toys taken away. There is a clear conflict of interest when you have a trade association developing standards that need to be made available to industries outside of its own. Of course it’s going to try to favour its members – that’s what it’s there for.

The sensible thing, surely, would be for the GSMA to incubate technologies such as eSIM and RCS but then hand them over to proper, independent standard-setting bodies like the 3GPP as they mature and become commercial realities. We don’t know why it doesn’t but it surely can’t be a matter of money; the GSMA has Mobile World Congress for that.


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