Cellular Modems

Article by:
Date Published:
Last Modified:

Child Pages

  • HE910 Design Notes
  • Overview

    Most embedded modems are designed to communicate to a microcontroller over a UART interface. Some cellular modems also have embedded GPS decoders.


    Cellular modem design is FULL of acronyms/initialisms, here is a list to help you make sense of them:

    1G1G refers to the first generation of mobile telephone networks, one of which was NMT.
    2G2G (second-generation) is a cellular network structure. It was the first structure to be digital, and the first to allow other data aside from voice, such as SMS messages.
    2.5GSee [GPRS](GPRS).
    2.75GSee Edge.
    3G3G (third-generation) is a cellular network structure.
    3G+See HSDPA.
    3.5GSee HSDPA.
    3GPPAn initialism for the 3rd generation partnership project. The initial scope of the project was to make a globally applicable 3G mobile phone system based on evolved GSM specifications.
    3GPP2An initialism for the 3rd Generation Partnership Project 2. The projects goal was to make a globally applicable 3G cellular system within the scope the ITU's IMT-2000 project.
    A-GPSAn acronym for Assited GPS.
    Antenna DiversityWhen a cellular modem has more than one antenna. This is to increase the chances of getting a good single when the modem is in any one position.
    DCSDCS is an initialism for "**digital cellular service**", which is the GSM-1800 band in the U.K.
    EDGEAn initialism for "enhanced data rates for GSM evolution". It is a cellular technology is a backward-compatible extension of GSM that speeds up data transmission rates.
    GSMGSM is an initialism for "**Global System for Mobile Communications**". It is a standard defined by ETSI describing the 2G, 3G and 4G protocols.
    HSDPAAn initialism for "high-speed downlink packet access". It is a 3G comm protocol allowing transmission speeds of up to 42.2Mbit/s. It is also called 3.5G, 3G+ or Turbo 3G. Also see HSUPA.
    HSUPAAn initialism for "high-speed uplink packet access". It is a 3G comm protocol allowing transmission speeds of up to 5.76Mbit/s. Also see HSDPA.
    ITUITU is an initialism for the "**International Telecommunication Union**". They produce specifications for cellular systems such as IMT-2000 (PCS).
    LTELTE is an initialism for "**Long Term Evolution**". It is a 4G standard for high-speed data.
    MCAMCA is an initialism for "**Mobile Communication Services On Aircraft**". It is a term used for any mobile systems operating on aircraft. It uses GSM-1800 technology.
    MOMO is an initialism for "**Mobile Originated**". It is a term used for when a SMS has been sent from a mobile device. Also see MT.
    MTMT is an initialism for "**Mobile Terminated**". It is a term used for when a SMS has been sent to a mobile device. Also see MO.
    NMTNMT is an initialism for "**Nordic Mobile Telephony**" (when translated to English). It is used to refer to the first analog cellular telephone systems, also called 1G systems (this was backwards named after 2G systems came out). Two bands existed, the NMT-450 and NMT-900.
    PCSPCS is an initialism for "**Personal Communications Service**". PCS is part of the IMT-2000 standard (as defined by the ITU).
    Penta Band
    Quad Band
    SMSSMS is an initialism for "**short message servie**".
    Turbo 3GSee HSDPA.
    UMBAn initialism for ultra-mobile broadband.

    Power Supply

    Most embedded cellular modems run of a supply voltage of +3.8V. Linear regulators are preferred over switching regulators as they typically have lower dropout and voltage ripple. It a switching regulator is to be used, it is preferable to use one that operates at 500kHz or above, so that it can respond to the current pulses quickly and prevent the voltage dropping to far.

    A single cell Li-ion battery can also be used to power a +3.8V modem directly (with no regulator), as their voltage range falls within that acceptable for the modem. No other battery technology can be used (e.g. 4V Pb, Ni-MH or Ni-Cad) as their operating voltages either exceed or drop below that allowed by the modem.

    Rough Figures

    Avergae idle current1.5mA
    Avergae transmission current at max power600mA
    Avergae transmission current at average power150mA
    Peak transmission current2A (for say, 5ms)
    Average power dissipation when using voice1W
    Average power dissipation when using data2W

    SIM Cards

    Listed below are the common pins that you need to connect from the SIM card (technically to the SIM card holder).

    PinPin Type (w.r.t the modem)Description
    SIMCLKOututThe modem provides a clock signal to the SIM card through this pin.
    SIMRSTOutputThe modem uses this pin to reset the SIM card.
    SIMIOInput/outputThis pin is used to send and receive data between the modem and SIM card.
    SIMINInputThis pin is used to tell the modem when a SIM card is present. It is normally used in an active low configuration.
    SIMVCCPowerThe pin is used to provide power to the SIM card (sometimes from the modem itself).

    PCB Layout And Antenna Routing

    This is the most important part of the product design!

    The characteristic impedance is typically around 50Ω. The maximum allowed signal loss is normally around 0.3dB.

    Supported Bands



    The GSM band is designed so that data is sent not continuously but in bursts at a rate of around 216Hz. This results in large pulse currents that can be as high as 1.5-2.0A.

    Bands By Country

    Countries sorted by alphabetical order, networks sorted by technology and frequency.

    Country Supported Bands
    BrazilGSM-1900, GSM-2100
    • GSM-850 (rural, urban backup)
    • GSM-1900 (primary urban band, PCS)
    Japan(no GSM bands)
    MexicoGSM-1900 (PCS)
    New Zealand
    • GSM-900 (Vodafone, 2degrees)
    • GSM-1800 (Vodafone, 2degrees, only in congested areas)
    • UMTS-850 (Telecom)
    • UMTS-900 (Vodafone)
    • UMTS-2100 (Vodafone, Telecom)
    • LTE-1800 (Vodafone, only in Auckland/Christchurch)
    United States
    • GSM-850 (AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless)
    • GSM-1900 (Sprint Corporation, T-Mobile US (Metro PCS))
    South Korea(no GSM bands)


    Mihini is a “M2M embeddable runtime on top of Linux”. Since it requires Linux, it cannot be used in smaller embeddable projects. Code is written in the Lua language.


    The Telit HE910 family is a series of embedded modems all within the same LGA package. Some of the models have embedded GPS decoders in them. You can get them for about US$30 in quantities of 1000.

    The Simcom SIM900 is a very cheap and common place cellular modem, seen in plenty of hobbyist projects, and featuring on many Arduino/RaspberryPi shields. You can buy them for about US$18 in quantities of 1, and US$10 in quantities of 1000. The SIM900 is the most basic, but there are others in the SIM family, including the SIM908.

    Design Notes


    Geoffrey Hunter

    Dude making stuff.

    Creative Commons License
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License .

    Related Content

    No related content found.


      comments powered by Disqus