justiceDevelopment of the latest eSIM standard is on hold, pending an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, global standards organization GSMA said Saturday. Regardless of how it is resolved, the DOJ eSIM investigation raises some important issues about the standards-setting process.

DOJ eSIM Investigation
eSIM technology incorporates a range of features, and among other things, would make it easier for end users to switch providers by eliminating the need to replace the SIM card to make that switch. According to a report from the New York Times published Friday, the DOJ eSIM investigation focuses on whether AT&T and Verizon have colluded to establish a standard that would allow the carriers to lock the eSIM.

As GSMA explained in a press release, that capability would only apply in the U.S. and consumers “would need to explicitly consent to this under specific commercial agreements with their mobile operator, for example when purchasing a subsidized device.”

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GSMA said it is cooperating with the DOJ in this matter. An AT&T spokesperson told the NYT that it had provided information to the government and was working to move the issue forward, while a Verizon spokesperson said the issue was “much ado about nothing.”

Standards-Setting and Government
The news about the DOJ eSIM investigation happened to break just a week or so after I listened to an AT&T webinar that focused, in part, on the standards-setting process for 5G and the appropriate role of government in standards setting. Hank Kafka — AT&T vice president of access, architecture and analysis – sees the best solutions generally winning out in standards forums, provided that stakeholders are well represented. Industry representatives on a panel said it’s generally difficult for a single party to push its own agenda if that agenda doesn’t represent the optimal solution from a technology standpoint.

Yet according to the NYT report, the DOJ investigation was triggered at the request of a wireless carrier that competes with AT&T and Verizon and by a manufacturer, which one source named as Apple. And that raises the question: Why did these parties feel they had to turn to the government for help? Were they represented on the standards body, specifically the committee or forum charged with this specific standard? Did they feel the standards-setting process had failed them?

Industry generally tries to maintain control of the standards-setting process in the belief that the more heavily involved the government is, the longer the process is likely to take. Why would complainants risk delaying the process?

Participants on the AT&T webinar discussed the appropriate role for government in standards-setting and one of the recommendations was that government should be better represented on industry standards-setting forums. Was there a government representative on the appropriate GSMA forum or if not, should there have been?

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