The Difference Between Chipsets, Modules, and Modems (End-Devices)

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Choosing the Right Cellular Hardware

Chipsets, Modules, and Modems (End-Devices)

There’s a lot of confusion in the market about the three options for integrating cellular into IoT applications.  The three options are:

  1. Chipsets
  2. Modules
  3. Embedded Modems

Let’s set the record straight and make sure we’re all on the same page.

Your IoT device needs to connect to a cellular network, but what kind of radio system are you going to use? And what does that even mean?

A radio system is the thing that you’re going to use to connect to the cellular network over-the-air. You can do that in several ways.

Chipset, Module, Modem

Chipsets (The Lowest Level)

The lowest level radio system is called a chipset, pictured below. The big, black square in the middle of the board in the picture below is the chipset.  In actual size however, they’re very small.

Chipset on a board

The chipset conducts several critical functions. It is going to negotiate the lowest levels of connection and authentication with the cellular network. It’s going to control the frequency. It’s going to control all the super nerdy RF stuff that is required to connect and communicate data, SMS and voice over the cellular network.

Chips are very hard to work with. You typically need a custom designed board, and you need to have external things that are going to control all the cellular pieces, and they’re hard to talk to directly.

The process of starting at the chipset level requires a lot of time and expertise. The entire process might take one to two years and cost $1,000,000 or more.  This is not only due to the design and development of your product, but also the certification of your product. The entire end-product, inclusive of the chipset, must be “certified” to be on the cellular network.  If the certification fails, which it often does, the entire product must be redesigned and re-certified. And iterated again until certification is complete.

So instead of using chips from companies like Qualcomm, Intel and Sequans, a lot of companies have incorporated that chip into something a little bit bigger, a little bit easier to work with, and those are called “Modules.”

Modules (The Second Level)

Modules typically have a small processor, some memory, and voltage regulation. An additional radio and some added functionality like a GPS radio or a GNSS system are often incorporated as well.

chipset and module diagram

The module then becomes something like the example below from Telit. This module, as opposed to the chipset, is a package of electronics, inclusive of the chipset, which makes connecting to the cellular network a little bit easier.

If you flip a module over, you’ll see solder pads. These are typically “surface mount” components that are intended to go through a reflow oven in production.

Telit Module Example

Because modules are typically surface mounted, developing prototypes and proof of concept devices is difficult.  Even at medium volumes, the investment needed for a manufacturing line to incorporate a module can be significant. Designing a module into a product typically makes sense when production volumes begin to exceed 100,000 units. Not projected volumes, but when ACTUAL volumes reach these levels.

Also, using a module in a new product still requires the entire end-product to be certified on the cellular network.  Just as stated above, the certification process requires time and investment and must be repeated until certification is complete.

A chipset is the highest level of complexity for adding cellular connectivity to an IoT product and a module is the next level down – not quite as complex and challenging, but still a significant investment when not in volume production.

There’s another level – the simplest of them all, for developers to incorporate cellular into an end-device product. This is called a modem.

Modem (The Last Level)

A modem typically contains a module, which in turn contains a chipset. A modem incorporates standardized voltages and a hardware interface that’s easier to work with and significantly reduces design and prototyping schedules and costs. It is also possible to have sensors incorporated into the packaging of the modem.

Chipet Module Modem Diagram

NimbeLink provides the IoT marketplace with an End-Device Certified Modem through its flagship product line, Skywire®.  What is meant by “End-Device Certified” is that because the Skywire modem is functional as a standalone package, it can be certified for the cellular network BEFORE it is designed into an end product.  Skywire modems from NimbeLink eliminate the need for our customers to go through certification of their end products!

NimbeLink has led the market in integrating cellular ratios into IoT devices by offering the Skywire end-device certified modem. Building with an end-device certified modem eliminates the complexity of dealing with the costs and timelines associated with the certification process, as well as dramatically reducing the costs and timelines of prototyping and establishing a production line.

Pictured here is the Skywire from NimbeLink. The chipset is inside the module and the module is mounted on our board with the added software, electronics and functionality necessary to achieve end-device certification. A range of Skywire modems are available, inclusive of all major carriers, frequencies and technologies.  Most are already equipped with GPS & Glonass, etc. And if you desire additional sensors on the board, such as temperature, humidity, accelerometer, etc., talk to us. We have extensive experience integrating on-board sensors with Skywire.

Skywire End-Device Cellular Module Modems

The key advantage of Skywire is that it can be integrated directly into your product design. Skywire can be mounted onto a board, such as pictured below.  Skywire uses a Standard Interface to make it very, very easy to work with, and you can easily incorporate it into a proof of concept or use a Dev Kit.

Skywire Modem and End-Device Standard Interface

Risk Mitigation

Launching a new product is hard and most new product development initiatives fail.  Ask someone who has done it successfully and they’ll tell you that the keys are to:

  • Validate your market
  • Manage costs
  • Understand and mitigate risks
  • Understand and develop your channels
  • Be prepared to iterate and make changes
  • Don’t run out of cash

The Skywire family of end-device certified modems will help you address three of the bullets above.  We have already discussed how the Skywire can reduce development costs. Let’s talk about the other two.

The risks associated with taking a new product to market are vast.  Manufacturing, competition, market acceptance, funding and channel conflict are just a few.  Every effort to mitigate risks in every category has a compounding impact to the risk of the overall project.  The Skywire certified modem eliminates the risk of a successful certification, and significantly reduces the risks associated with design, technical & manufacturing.  Furthermore, the longer you spend in design, prototype and scaling a manufacturing line, the higher the chance that a competitor will beat you to market. Skywire reduces this risk as well by accelerating your time to market.

Another risk is customer acceptance, and the associated need to iterate and make changes to your design.  The standard interface used by Skywire mitigates this risk by reducing the complexity of board changes and simplifying the process of changing cellular technologies, frequencies and carriers.  Furthermore, if you have to certify your end product on the cellular network, you also have to certify your newly changed product. Insert Skywire, and you’re not back to recertification following a design iteration.

Summary

Using a modem is by far the fastest way to get your product connected to the cellular network. You’ll spend far less time, money and headaches by using a cellular modem. And if you use a Skywire modem, you’re end product will already be certified by the carriers whose networks you will use.

As a rule of thumb for production quantities under 25,000, a Skywire modem will save 75% over the cost of using a chipset and 50% over using a module.

Chipset Module Modem Comparison

You can expect more information about using modems in future blogs, but for now, just remember there’s a chipset inside of a module, and a module inside of a Skywire modem. These are three distinct strategies that you might use to connect your end product to the cellular network.  And until you are IN PRODUCTION with significant volumes, a Skywire certified modem will accelerate time to market, reduce costs, and mitigate risks.

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