Cellular USB modems for IoT: Huawei alternatives amid US/China trade concerns

Over the past few years, Soracom and our customers have tested a lot of USB cellular modems for IoT development. We know how hard it can be to find USB modems that actually work in the field as advertised, and we’ve consistently appreciated Huawei’s MS2131 3G and MS2372 LTE sticks for their reliable real-world performance.

However, given recent escalations in the trade relationship between US and China, we’ve also seen an increasing number of inquiries seeking alternative cellular IoT dongles that may be less affected by trade tensions.

As hands-on developers ourselves we understand those concerns. Based on lab and field tests conducted by the Soracom engineering team over the past few months, we’re happy to recommend the Zoom Telephonics LTE Cat M1 & Cat NB1 Industrial USB Cell Modem Models 4650/4651.

We’re sufficiently impressed with Zoom’s cellular modems for IoT that we’ve also started offering them for sale on Amazon. They come with a free Soracom SIM and from a cost/performance perspective we believe they’re a capable alternative to the Huawei sticks.

Zoom Telephonics 4650 - LTE Cat M1 & Cat NB1 Industrial USB Cell Modem with Soracom Global IoT SIM Card

We know that there is no single cellular modem that will work for all projects, and there are a lot of considerations including cellular technology (2G, 3G, LTE, Cat M1, NB-IOT, etc), cellular bands supported, network operator certifications, operating environment (indoors, outdoors, extreme temperatures, etc), carrier certification, and global coverage among others.

We like USB-mounting dongle-style modems because they make it super easy to get started with almost any hardware, cover most cellular use cases, and can scale quickly. Figuring out a fully fledged device with an onboard cellular module can take months to design and manufacture, and can be costly to start. We’ve seen companies starting out using a USB modem + Raspberry Pi based device and get up in running in a few days using the Soracom SIM (https://www.soracom.io/products/iot-sim/). We have even seen companies using this architecture for live deployments, starting from a single test device and scaling up to a full production workload in a 1,000 plus device environment.

The Zoom USB dongle works in Cat M1 (https://www.soracom.io/iot-definitions/what-is-cat-m1/), a cellular technology that leverages the LTE network and can help minimize the power consumption on the device that is ideal for IoT and M2M type projects that may be battery powered.

Here is the unfiltered feedback from Zakk Alumbaugh, our Solutions Architect who tested out the Zoom USB dongle.

“The testing of the Zoomtel 4650 was as close to an out-of-the-box experience as you can get, especially when paired with the Soracom SIM. The internal Quectel BG96 modem module is one of my favorites due to its power and flexibility in such a small form factor. We were connected in just a few minutes following Zoomtel’s PPP Dialer (pppd) Quickstart that came with the unit. They also offer Scripts to download from their support site that will do it all for you.

Another very simple way to connect is through the NetworkManager utility. We simply installed NetworkManager on our device and added the below minimal configuration file to the appropriate NetworkManager directory (slightly differs between OS’s) and it connected automatically. With either method, an LTE connection can be established in seconds, with no need to configure an APN as the Soracom APN settings will be pushed to the modem automatically.

[connection]
id=cellular
type=gsm
autoconnect=true
[ipv4]
method=auto
[ipv6]
method=auto

Overall, after testing many dongles in the market, from both a price point and ease-of-use perspective the Zoom 4650 works perfectly well and I’d be confident recommending it for a quick POC to even a production environment.”

You can find the product specifications here (http://www.zoomtel.com/products/cell-modems.html). If you want to learn further or need other product recommendations, feel free to contact me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kawamoto/)!

Eugene

 
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