Cellular Modems vs Cellular Modules: Here’s What You Need to Know

Published on December 16, 2019

Cellular Modems vs Cellular Modules: Here’s What You Need to Know

Cellular continues to prove to be a great wireless protocol for connectivity in new IoT designs. The latest low-power cellular specifications, LTE-M and NB-IoT, provide exciting new possibilities and opening the floodgates for a massive influx of new cellular devices into the marketplace. For many manufacturers, this isn’t an instance of upgrading an existing cellular device, but rather a brand new design process with a wholly new set of requirements.

A new design cycle means answering some preliminary, basic questions such as whether to buy or build on the core cellular component, and exactly how much to invest in this area. Most manufacturers decide to leverage the expertise of a company like Ezurio (formerly Laird Connectivity) for the wireless piece of their design. But there remains the question of how much to invest in a wireless component.  

There are three types of cellular hardware: the chipset, a cellular module, and a cellular modem. Each of these is more complex, and serves as a bigger investment, than the last. But understanding each is critical to making the right wireless selection for your new design, and can potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost time and additional testing.

Cellular Chipset: An Expensive Start for Development

The cellular chipset is the core feature that modules and modems are built on, and which provides the most fundamental wireless basics. The chipset handles generating frequencies, authentication, and more, essentially serving as the engine at the center of any wireless device. But while it’s the smallest and most fundamental of our three choices, developing from the chipset level is by far the most expensive.

That’s because from a product volume standpoint, unless you expect to be selling 250,000 units or more, the additional development you’ll need to do to create a complete solution starting at the chipset level is prohibitively expensive. Designing RF is complicated to begin with, setting aside the new and unexplored complications inherent in adding new components to a chipset. Every additional board-level addition introduces new interactions and potential interference from a radio perspective.

The additional time in development, pre-approved hardware components, regulatory approvals, and more means that where you save on the per-unit cost, the total cost of ownership is virtually guaranteed to be significantly higher than leveraging someone else’s expertise in purchasing a cellular module or cellular modem.

Cellular Module: More Pre-Integrated Features, But Not All

The cellular module is a more functional option, based on a cellular chipset, which can provide you with a larger set of solutions to the problems of wireless design. For those without extensive wireless experience, purchasing a cellular module is probably the strict minimum, considering just how nuanced wireless design can be in practice.

A cellular module integrates some hardware and software solutions on top of the chipset to improve your experience adding cellular functionality. It’s likely to include an onboard microprocessor, memory, a power supply connector, and antenna port, and more.

This is much more cost-effective, especially at volumes of more like 50,000. The amount of added engineering work contributed by a module provider makes a lot of sense for a wireless integrator. The module contains must-have components that the chipset designer would have to develop anyway, but at a much lower per-module cost than for those who develop those components themselves.

However, there are still lots of needs that a wireless module may not account for. Regulatory and industry certifications, carrier certifications, and the opportunity costs associated with delays in addressing these can have a significant financial impact to your product design. Certifications can amount to as much as many tens of thousands of dollars per design.

Most of this is unlikely to be included with the cellular module. For this reason, from a per-device standpoint, the best value for a cellular solution is almost certain to be the cellular modem.

Cellular Modem: Unparalleled Value for Most Manufacturers

The third and most complex level of cellular solution is the cellular modem. The cellular modem is a more fully featured extension of which contains a cellular module with additional hardware interfaces, application software, hosted and hostless modes, a SIM card slot, and even other wireless modules.

This is important because it means the wireless modem is ready immediately to be integrated into some other host hardware via some of the wired protocols that are likely already on board. Software provides the function and format for data to be sent. A SIM slot makes it ready to drop into a carrier’s network with a simple card. And multiple wireless protocols mean the device is already prepared to serve as a bridge from one wireless protocol to the next.

But while additional features provide convenience and an easier development process, the real advantage is in terms of time and cost. A wireless modem can provide drop-in modular approvals at the regulatory and industry/carrier level, saving tens of thousands of dollars. Having been pre-tested and approved, they erase the threat of late-design problems and ambiguities that drag out design cycles and create hidden costs.  

While this option is the most expensive at the point of purchase, it is by far the least expensive from a complete product development perspective. A cellular modem is more costly than a cellular chip, but the costs inherent in developing a solution from the ground up make a modem a much better investment. For deployments of less than 25,000 devices, the value is significant: faster time to market, lower engineering cost, fast-tracked certification process, and lower risk overall.

The Pinnacle™ 100: A Premium Cellular Modem from a Trusted Partner

For most manufacturers, especially those who are newcomers to cellular, the Pinnacle 100 is the fastest route to market for a cellular device. The Pinnacle 100 modem includes an onboard Cortex M4F microcontroller, Bluetooth v5, LTE-M/NB-IoT support, and onboard flash memory.

The Pinnacle 100 offers full regulatory certifications and LTE carrier approvals, as well as provides multiple antenna options including a fully integrated antenna offering. Engineers can develop directly on the M4F controller using Zephyr RTOS which results in lower BOM costs and better power consumption.

Multi-protocol support makes it easier than ever to secure data from the Bluetooth PAN and bridge it to the Cellular WAN, enabling a new generation of exciting IoT applications. Visit our Pinnacle 100 page to learn more.