What You Need to Know About Choosing Embedded Modems for IoT

March 20, 2019 Altium Designer

 Using IoT devices

IoT enables you to control devices over the internet.

If you grew up in an era where the Internet existed without Google, you may be as amazed as I am to see how far technology has evolved. It would have been beyond my wildest imagination to think about machines conversing intelligently on the Internet without much human intervention. Back when I was introduced to the online world, it took several minutes to simply load a single page of sports news on the browser.

Today, the technology that drives the internet has grown multiple times over. The term IoT was initially tossed around by engineering experts and has now become a reality for some homeowners. One of the key elements in ensuring the success of IoT is the communication driven by the embedded modem.

 

What is IoT and How Does it Work?

IoT refers to the Internet of Things, which is a group of smart electronics devices connected to the Internet. This forms a global network where machine-to-machine and man-to-machine communications can occur in any part of the world.

The seemingly limitless possibility of IoT is bound to transform various industries, like medical, manufacturing, home automation, and so much more. For the non-technical people, IoT enables you to get your espresso machine to make you a cup of coffee while you’re on the way home or order new supplies of beans when it’s emptied out.

For engineers and software developers, the IoT involves sensors, connectivities, a cloud-based server that does the heavy processing, and an intuitive user interface to connect with humans. In actual applications, connectivity and component selection can often make or break the IoT hardware.

 

What is an Embedded Modem?

For IoT, the embedded modem is a piece of hardware that provides connectivity to the internet, often through the cellular network or machine-to-machine connections. It removes the challenge of building an entire cellular modem for PCB designers and allows them to focus on product specifics.

Embedded modems for IoT applications usually have small form factors and require minimal power to operate. These modems support standard AT commands to simplify communications with IoT application host controllers. This means that firmware developers do not need to be concerned about developing security or internet protocols that are already handled by the embedded modem.

How IoT hardware connects to a cellular network

An embedded modem connects IoT hardware to a cellular network.

 

Things to Consider When Choosing an Embedded Modem for IoT

You can have the most precise sensors or a powerful low power microcontroller driving your IoT hardware. But if it doesn’t sustain a stable connection to the Internet, it is not IoT-ready. That’s how important selecting the right embedded modem is for your IoT design.

Here are a few useful tips to maximize your chances of successfully choosing an embedded modem that best fits your IoT design:

1. Carrier Networks

The last thing you want is to have a prototype that is unable to connect to the local cellular service provider in your area. It’s important to note the LTE frequency band and the carrier supported by a particular modem. For example, the Multiconnect Dragonfly Nano supports 700 MHz (B12), 850 MHz (B5), AWS1700 MHz (B4), and 1900 MHz (B2) for the North American LTE bands and 700 MHz (B13) for Verizon.

2. Power Consumption

Embedded modems are designed to consume low power. If your IoT hardware operates on battery, every single milliamp can make a huge difference to the lifespan of the battery. Ensure that you have the precise figure of the idle current, deep sleep current, and most importantly, the transmit current.

Increasing battery life

Minimizing power consumption helps prolong battery lifespan.

3. Upgradability

The IoT is still a growing technology that will see improvements in years to come, including embedded modems for connectivities. Ensure that you plan for upgradability when you’re choosing the modem. For example, Digi International maintains a similar footprint for its range of embedded modems. Furthermore, the firmware of the modems can be upgraded over-the-air for convenience.

4. Security

Globally connected IoT devices can offer convenience to humans or chaos if subjected to malware or other forms of attacks. Ensure that the embedded modem of your choice offers basic security protections, such as the Secure Boot, Protected JTAG, and cryptographic protocols.

IoT connects devices in a way that is unprecedented. Ensuring that your design is IoT ready, however, is easier said than done. By working with a tool like Altium Designer®, you can pre-define specifications to ensure that your PCB is well-designed to handle IoT requirements. This starts with picking the best embedded modem for your IoT design to ensure that Internet connectivity does not become a limiting factor.

Need more tips in choosing an embedded modem for your IoT project? Talk to an Altium expert for more information.

About the Author

Altium Designer

PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.

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