Matt Hamblen

Dual-SIM phones not coming to the U.S. (SIMs are too tiny for one thing!)

February 12, 2013 10:44 AM EST

Dual-SIM wireless phones have been introduced by Nokia and LG Electronics for use in countries outside the U.S.   The question remains whether they or other dual-SIM phones will ever catch on in the U.S. in significant numbers.

A dual-SIM phone like the new Nokia Asha 310, based on the Series 40 OS from Nokia, and the new LG Optimis L7 II, based on Android,  allow a user to  switch between SIM cards for personal or work data or put a certain carrier's plan on one SIM that, say, handles voice and text while the other SIM handles just data.  

The Asha 310 has an interrnal SIM behind the battery and an external slot on the side that is designed for a second SIM that can make it easy to switch between the two. It also has Wi-Fi for faster data access.  The Asha 310 will support up to five different SIMs, according to Nokia's press release announcing the Asha 310. Customers will use SIM manager software to assign profiles to different SIMs.

Nokia has built more than 1.5 billion phones running the Series 40 OS in recent years, and it is a platform mainly designed for mid-tier feature phones, and not smartphones.  Series 40 has helped Nokia, as the company has seen better sales from about a dozen Asha models than from the Windows Phone Lumia line. 

The Asha 310 will sell for $102, but not in the U.S., at least for now.  The Optimus L7 II will be sold in Russia, but pricing was not announced.

When I first heard of dual-SIM phones, I was intrigued at how much flexibility such a device could create for a user.  In a sense, it could replace the dual-person approach in the Balance software on the BlackBerry 10 OS seen in the Z10.  I could access data for work from a work SIM and data for personal junk on a personal SIM.  Then, I could buy an unlmited data plan at a rock-bottom price on another SIM from carrier X and still rely on good voice and text from carrier Y on another SIM. 

In theory, at least.

The U.S. hasn't seemed to cultivate much of a culture of SIM switching, as AT&T and T-Mobile were the main GSM carriers. With CDMA, both Verizon Wireless and Sprint didn't even have SIM cards.  Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world has been heavily GSM-oriented for many years and customers have grown accustomed to buying a phone separate from a SIM, using the SIM to switch into a new phone to carry forward the same phone number and other vital information.

With LTE, that's all changing in the U.S. of course, with Verizon leading the way with LTE deployments and offering newer phones with SIM cards. We all won't necessarily be able to switch our Verizon LTE phone to other LTE carriers because the spectrum is not aligned. That means that one carrier will use phone radios on LTE running at a higher spectrum band than another on a lower band.  Many new phones are multi-band, but not all, and the iPhone still has two models--one for Verizon and Sprint and the other for AT&T (and soon, T-Mobile). 

Chris Nicoll, an analyst at Analysys Mason, casts doubt on whether dual-SIM phones will catch on in the U.S., unless the pre-paid wireless market really takes a "huge leap forward" where customers can easily switch without penalty to get better deals.  "In the U.S., even on pre-paid, the rates don't seem to change that much, so I'm not sure I see a big driver for dual-SIM phones," he told me.

Also in the U.S., there's a pretty strong tradition of customers not switching their carriers very often, especially with two-year contracts still remaining popular. Both AT&T and Verizon experience less than 1% customer churn, Nicoll noted.  "Swapping SIMs in and out is also a new experience for most Americans who tend not to open the back of their phones for anything, and with IPhones  you can't open the back," Nicoll added.

I am probably in that group also, although I did swap out my AT&T SIM in my Galaxy S III to use in my review of the new BlackBerry Z10.  I am not sure my reluctance in the past to have looked into a low-cost data plan from T-Mobile or somebody else with a SIM stems from anything other than laziness.  I tend to want to stay with what's giving me few headaches, even if that means it costs me somewhat more.  

Also, I really truly hate it every time I try to swap a SIM from near or behind a cell phone battery. My fingers are too big and awkward, my vision isn't perfect and I'm worried that I'll drop the little SIM of great value onto the floor where it will fall into the heating duct and be hopelessly lost. I had to pull out the AT&T SIM with a bent paper clip and felt I had done something historic and heroic in doing so. (I feel the same way about sewing on buttons and installing watch batteries and screwing in the little screw on my eyeglass frame.)

I smile when I think of all the conspiracy theorists who believe Apple is controlling us by not  allowing us to open the back of the iPhone to install a SIM or swap a battery. It may be that Apple is controlling our behaviors and locking us into its platform, but it might also be because Apple really understands Americans like me who can't stand fiddling with tiny SIM cards and even relatively small batteries.

If the dual SIM-card phone is ever going to catch on in the U.S., the carriers are going to need  to set up special training sessions in their stores with a sign that reads: "SIM illiterate line up here." Or maybe they should hire out interns with a surgeon's fingers to go around offices to offer to switch SIMs on demand for a small fee. It would be like the coffee cart service they used to have in offices.

Seriously, dual SIM phones would offer Americans more flexibility in choosing rate plans and organizing data on their phones.  But no manufacturer is going to mass produce  such phones for the U.S. without seeing that Americans feel a need for such flexbility. En masse, we're pretty set in our ways when it comes to wireless services.