Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees aren't supporting the "e-sim" technology embraced by Apple's latest products - and a consumer advocate says it's all about the telcos' fear that it could empower customers.
The new iPhone Xs Max supports a regular sim card, but also features an "e-sim" or embedded sim - a virtual sim card that lets a customer have more than one phone plan at once, or even belong to two different telcos as they juggle between home and work accounts, or use different accounts for different situations to save money. The technology should also be a boon for travellers who want to grab a local account without the hassle of buying a sim.
Similarly, the new Apple Watch Series 4 comes in two models: "GPS", which needs to pair with an iPhone for full connectivity features, and "GPS + Cellular" or "LTE" which features an e-sim.
Telecommunications Users Association head Craig Young says Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees could be dragging their feet on e-sim technology — which does away with a physical sim card — because it makes it a lot easier to switch phone companies or split their business between competing telcos.
Verdon Kelliher, an executive with Christchurch-based, ASX-listed health and safety software maker Vault Intelligence, says the local telcos' foot-dragging on e-sims is costing him sales of Solo - his company's new app designed to work with Samsung's latest Galaxy Watch.
"I've literally got dozens of businesses waiting for e-sim so they can purchase Solo," he says.
And assistive technology advocate Jonathan Mosen says he wanted to buy the LTE version of the Watch Series 4 for his elderly mother because of its ability to detect if a wearer has fallen over, then send an alert to a loved one.
"The LTE watch would mean she'd be able to take advantage of the fall detection anywhere," he says.
He adds, "I want an Apple Watch LTE for me as well, and now that I have an iPhone Xs Max, I'd like the freedom to be able to use two carriers at once for coverage and consumer choice purposes. All mobile networks have dead spots."
Apple has not made any public announcement on the issue, but the Herald understands it would happily offer the Apple Watch Series 4 if Spark et al would support its e-sim.
Spark corporate relations partners Cassie Arauzo said e-sim support is on the way.
"We will be working with Apple to introduce this feature to our customers — there is no ETA," she said.
Similarly, 2degrees comms head Katherine Cornish said: "We recognise the benefits that e-sim on the Apple Watch Series 4 and iPhone Xs will bring to our customers. We are looking at how we might bring this technology to our customers — though at this stage we can't say when that will be."
For Vodafone, spokeswoman Meera Kaushik said: "The Vodafone network currently does not support e-sim functionality. In fact, only 10 countries support the Apple e-sim at this stage. Vodafone does have plans to support this technology in the future." Vodafone NZ's CEO-designate Jason Paris later took to Twitter to promise an e-sim in the first quarter of next year.
Any new technology takes time and money for telcos to add support, but as Apple points out on its website, there are many carriers already supporting e-sims — and while it might be "only 10 countries" supporting the technology, they include major markets such as the US (where AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are all on board), Canada, the UK, Spain and Germany. It's also notable that Vodafone Spain and Vodafone Germany have joined the e-sim party. And that a carrier in Croatia, which has a similar population to NZ, offers support for the technology.
The Herald's initial coverage about the Watch Series 4 last Thursday inspired Auckland man Sandeep Khurana to start an online petition in a bid to convince incoming Vodafone NZ chief executive Jason Paris to support e-sims. As of Monday morning, he had close to 400 signatures.
E-sims are also supported by Google's Pixel 2 smartphone, which is not officially for sale in New Zealand, plus Samsung's latest Galaxy Watch and Huawei's Watch 2.
Young said while the telcos might delay things, ultimately they'll be overwhelmed by the e-sim tide.
"It would appear to us that the reluctance of the NZ mobile operators to implement e-sims is around their concern that it is likely to remove one more barrier to moving between carriers," he says.
"This is also probably behind the lack of support for multi-sim capable phones. However, an e-sim is simply an electronic version of something physical and in the long run is likely to be implemented by the phone manufacturers as a replacement of the sim card. In the long run, savvy consumers will choose the offer that works for them and the form of the sim will be immaterial."