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The LTE Hardware Landscape: Your Options And Important Choices

By ·Categories: Depend OnLogic, Tech Explained·Published On: December 10th, 2020·5.2 min read·

The rate of Internet of Things (IoT) growth, is hard to fully comprehend. Some research suggests that by 2025, there will be 152,200 IoT devices connecting to the internet per minute. With so many solutions being built, and connections being made between those solutions, it’s important for machine builders and IoT innovators to determine the most effective and efficient way for their systems to communicate with each other and the cloud. Whether you’re looking to provide versatile connectivity, failover protection, mobile data handling or enhanced security, identifying the right connectivity model is paramount. As you may have learned from our previous article, there are a number of barriers to LTE connectivity, including the high cost and complexity of device certification. Ultimately, the feasibility of a given LTE hardware solution will depend on your specific application, the installation environment, the number of devices being connected and your willingness – and technical ability – to navigate the certification process.

Up until recently there have been three primary methods to connect industrial hardware to the cellular network.

LTE Hardware Option 1: Connect Via External Certified Modem

MultiTech eCellYour first option to is to purchase an external LTE modem that connects to a PC using a standard USB or Ethernet port. This is a potentially attractive option if you have a pre-existing Ethernet enabled PC that you want to make LTE capable. There are several external Ethernet-to-cellular devices currently available, including directly connectable dongles that hang off of PC hardware and external boxes like the MultiTech eCell pictured. While external LTE modems of this kind are relatively inexpensive, starting around $200, there are a number of factors to consider when integrating these products into an embedded solution or end device.

External LTE modems require a separate power supply, antenna attachments and additional Ethernet cables. They are also seldom constructed using industrial grade components and tend to offer limited operating temperature ranges. Of particular concern to embedded device builders, in addition to not offering a fully integrated solution, external modems leave your network vulnerable to tampering or disconnection. It’s also important to note that with virtually all external modem options you will have to purchase a SIM card separately and activate the device yourself.

If you are looking for a rugged or fully integrated solution, this will not be the right choice for you.

External Modems:

  • Require additional hardware to connect
  • Are not often industrial grade
  • Don’t create an integrated solution
  • Are vulnerable to tampering and theft
  • Require separate SIM card purchase

LTE Hardware Option 2: Self-Certify Your Own End Device

With many 4G LTE components available, and a growing market of 5G options beginning to appear, it is of course possible to integrate an existing pre-certified modem into your device and embark on the final, end-device certification process on your own. Internal LTE modems can be installed via PCIe slot as well as M.2 interface, and are available from a number of manufacturers.

Nimblelink SkywireOne of the first 4G LTE modem products to market was the NimbeLink Skywire. The Skywire offers a number of network options and development kits, and allows users to pay a monthly rate for cellular data plans.

While modem integration gives device builders a fair bit of flexibility in terms of hardware design, it is also a very complex, time consuming and expensive process to certify the final configuration. Depending on the use case, registration and/or certifications with the PTCRB, carrier specific organizations and the Global Certification Forum (GCF) can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 and require as much as 6 months to a year to complete (you can learn more about safety certifications here). In addition, because most LTE modems connect via PCIe or M.2, careful hardware design is required to ensure that other features like Wi-Fi or GPS connectivity, which generally require the same installation locations, remain available if required by your project.

Self-Certification:

  • Requires a time-consuming certification process
  • Is subject to upfront development and certification costs
  • Can present challenges for physical integration depending on device configuration requirements

LTE Hardware Option 3: Pre-Certified, LTE Capable Industrial Hardware

Cellular-enabled embedded computers are a powerful and versatile solution for industrial applications. The option to buy a pre certified, LTE-enabled device is an attractive and convenient one for many hardware users. However, only a handful of companies currently offer pre-certified 4G LTE embedded computers, and 5G systems are likely a ways off as the industrial world lags behind the consumer market in making 5G a cost effective and efficient reality. What’s more, available integrated solutions tend to feature only limited customization options and come at a heavy cost premium.

The biggest challenges with pre-certified IPC systems revolve around application and configuration flexibility. Because of the cost and complexity of device certification, LTE computers are most commonly limited to one or two models. As such, your connectivity, form factor and feature options will be limited to what manufacturers elect to certify. If your project has very specific performance, I/O or other requirements it can be challenging to find an LTE capable system that meets your needs.

Pre-Certified, LTE Capable Industrial Hardware:

  • Tends to have limited configuration options
  • Don’t offer much form factor flexibility
  • Often requires sacrificing features

NEW! Option 4: OnLogic Hardware with Extrovert Technology

OnLogic 4G LTE ComputerIn response to the roadblocks outlined above, and with input from clients who are creating next generation devices that require LTE connectivity, we’ve created our Extrovert Line of LTE capable Products. Extrovert systems are fully customizable, easily connectible and pre-certified with the leading cellular carriers. By creating a modem that can be easily integrated into our most popular industrial computer systems, we’re able to offer users a pre-certified solution, capable of reliable connectivity in even the most challenging industrial, automation and mobile computing environments.

As you’ve seen, while there are a number of options available for LTE hardware connectivity, if you need an easy to activate, industrial, fully integrated 4G LTE device, OnLogic hardware with Extrovert technology may be just the solution you’ve been looking for.

Learn More About Extrovert LTE

The Easiest Cellular Connectivity Solution for IoT PCs

Explore Extrovert Hardware

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About the Author: Darek Fanton

Darek is the Communications Manager at OnLogic. His passion for both journalism and technology has led him from the newsrooms of local papers to the manufacturing floor of IBM. His background in news gathering has him always on the lookout for the latest in emerging tech and the best ways to share that information with readers. In addition to his affinity for words, Darek is a music lover, juggler and huge fan of terrible jokes.
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