You don’t much like roaming charges – the premium that your network operator charges you to use voice or data when you are on a different network in another country. Neither does your car, or the company that makes it.

Car makers have big plans for connected cars. They and others plan on offering all sorts of new services, from usage-based insurance, through enhanced information-rich navigation services, to streaming entertainment content, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and ultimately self-driving cars. Some of these services, like eCall and stolen vehicle tracking, are parsimonious in their data consumption, but others – especially ADAS and streaming entertainment – have the potential to be absolute gluttons for data.

But the car industry and the telecoms industry don’t always play nicely with each other. In lots of places (Europe especially) cars cross borders all the time; and they get made in one country, and are then shipped off to lots of others. So if they’re connected cars, they might be roaming a lot of the time. They might even be roaming all the time. The car makers would like to put the SIM card in to the telematics box at the point of manufacture and then never think about it again, but that means they’d have to know where each car was going to be shipped as they made it.

Cubic Telecom Logo
Cubic Telecom Logo

One company that has a solution is Cubic Telecom, a Dublin-based company with backing from chip design giant Qualcomm and connectivity module maker Sierra Wireless. Cubic is a software provider, but it can act like a fully-fledged telecoms operator. It has its own core network, a rating and billing system, its own network codes and number ranges, its own SIM cards, and a platform to manage them.

These last two are perhaps the most important, because the essence of Cubic’s roaming work-around is embedded software on the SIM. This enables the software to swap the unique identifier on the SIM – the IMSI – for another one that marks the connection out as belonging to a local rather than a visiting roamer. Cubic’s platform does the over-air-management of the SIM, and the company boasts that its approach enables the IMSI change to happen more quickly, and with a smaller exchange of data, than alternative solutions.

Cubic’s status as a network operator, and a series of local MVNO agreements, means that it has the right codes and interfaces to deal with local networks. Interestingly, it doesn’t approach this as a ‘disruptor’ that is attempting to subvert the roaming regime but as a partner to the operators, bringing them a useful tool for a defined set of use cases.

For a little company (42 employees) Cubic has notched up some impressive announcements, including deals with Wal-Mart, HP, Tesla and China Mobile. It has agreements with some 20 tier one mobile operators. And though connected car is one of its key targets, it also aims to use its solution to provide cross-border connectivity for computer manufacturers too – hence the deal with HP, and another with Lenovo.

It would be jejune not to point out that Cubic is far from the only provider of solutions like this. The mobile operators’ club, the GSMA, has been for some years working on a standards-based approach to enable SIM cards to be provisioned over the air with a network identity, after they are installed. SIM vendor Giesecke & Devrient (G&D) has a product based on the standard, and AT&T announced that it was now using a standards-based product for its own ‘global SIM’ offering. Orange too has what it calls a ‘multi-domestic’ offering to enable some connections to be local rather than roamers wherever they go.

The more jejune observers might be wondering, though, why the telecoms industry is working so hard to devise clever solutions to a problem that is entirely of its own making – to work out how to get round the charging regime for roaming this it has itself created and which it sustains. Regulators are increasingly tough on roaming charges, having given up on any expectation that the industry would regulate itself. Voice roaming charges, within Europe at least, are now just dear rather than extortionate.

The technical mechanisms for data roaming – especially the way that connections to the internet are delivered via the roamer’s home network, rather than via local break-out – seem increasingly archaic and bizarre.

The rules for roaming were imagined for a different sort of world, when the typical roamer was a privileged ‘international business traveller’. International travel was expensive, and you still got cloth napkins with your airline meal. Perhaps the industry should call time on the whole business and accept that connectivity, like the internet, is just global.