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

Sep 10, 2019

Choosing the Right Cellular Hardware

Chipsets, Modules, and Modems (End-Devices)

There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace about the three options for cellular radio hardware:

  1. Chipsets
  2. Modules
  3. Embedded Modems

So, 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?

So 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.


Chipsets (The Lowest Level)

The lowest level radio system is called a chipset. And I’ve got an example of a chipset below. As you can see it’s this big, black square in the middle of the board in the picture below. That is the chipset.  In actual size though, they’re very small.


The chipset conducts several valuable 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.

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 use…

Modules (The Second Level)

And that is called a module.  On the module board you’re typically going to have a small processor, some memory, and some voltage regulation. You might also have an additional radio, and some additional functionality – maybe a GPS radio or a little GNSS system.


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

With a module though, if you flip it over, you’re going to see solder pads. These are typically surface mount components that are intended to go through a reflow oven in production.


When you’re talking about a module, prototyping proof of concept becomes a little bit more difficult, so using a module tend to make the most sense when you have really high volumes (200,000+) and you know you are working a lot of products through the production line.

But you can go one step further in the process of making things easier and simpler to work with when you are designing to connect to a cellular network.

So, chipset is the highest level of complexity, and a module is the next level – not quite as complex and challenging. There’s another level – the simplest of them all, when developers incorporate a module into an end-device. This is called a modem.

End-Device – also known as a Modem (The Last Level)

A modem typically contains a module, which in turn contains a chipset. The modem then typically incorporates standardized voltages, a hardware interface that’s easier to work with. Sometimes you can even have your sensors incorporated at the end-device level. You know this is really the final stage when it comes to the cellular radio access portion of building a piece of hardware.


What NimbeLink has done, is we have created an end-device. Building with an end-device certified modem eliminates the complexity of dealing with the costs and time loss associated with the certification process. So right here is the NimbeLink Skywire Cellular Modem and this is an end-device. There is the chipset inside a module and this is the module on our fully certified end-device cellular modem. This will greatly reduce your time-to-market.


So the nice thing about this is that you can put this directly into your designs. You can put it into a board, such as this one right here [Figure Below], and by having that Skywire Standard Interface on the board it makes it very, very easy to work with, and you can easily incorporate it into a proof of concept or use a Dev Kit.

Using a modem is by far the fastest way to get your product connected to 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 device will already be certified by the carriers whose networks you will use. As a rule of thumb for unit quantities under 25,000, using a modem will be just 25% of the cost of using a chipset and less than half the cost of the cost of using a module.


You can expect more information about using modems in future blogs, but for now, just remember there’s a chipset inside of a module, inside of your end-device, and those are three different distinct levels of radios that you might use to connect to the cellular network.




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