Spark Goes Cellular With The Electron

A few years ago, small and cheap WiFi modules burst onto the scene and with that the Spark was born. It’s a tiny dev board with a TI CC3000 WiFi module, capable of turning any device into an Internet-connected device. It’s only the very beginning of the Internet of Things, yes, but an important step in the right direction. Now, Spark is unshackling itself from WiFi networks with the Spark Electron, a dev kit that comes with a cellular radio and data plan.

If you’ve ever tried to build a high altitude balloon, a project that will be out of range of WiFi, or anything else where cellular data would be a godsend, you’ll quickly realize Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and all the other carriers out there don’t necessarily care about your project. As far as we can tell, Spark is the first company to fix this gaping hole in what cellular can do by offering their own service – 20,000 messages for $3/month and no contracts. Officially, that’s 1MB of data spread over 20k messages that are about 50 bytes in length.

There are a few dozen companies and organizations working on the next generation of The Internet Of Things, but these require completely new silicon and spectrum allocations or base stations. Right now, there’s exactly one way of getting a Thing on the Internet without WiFi, and that’s with cellular data. We have to hand it to Spark for this one, and can’t wait to see the projects that will be possible due to a trickle of Internet everywhere.

53 thoughts on “Spark Goes Cellular With The Electron

      1. Actually, airborne cellular data isn’t as direct of a path as one would think. The aircraft carries an on-board cell tower which is then switched through the aircraft’s satellite and VHF radios.

  1. Also there is no cellular service above ground. it would be stupid to be blasting those few watts of power from the cellular tower to space, you want to aim your antenna perpendicular to ground.

  2. As a spark core user, I’m kinda tempted to insta-pledge one.
    What I dont like is the MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) thing and having them as my carrier. I dont get it why I need them. I know from various podcasts that US folks just recently discovered SIM-Cards as a thing they can swap and not have bundled with a phone, but in the EU we already have a nice system of owning SIM-Cards. I could go and buy myself a Flatrate Contract for 6$ per month if I want to and push images over 3G unlimited instead of like 5 with their Dataplan. Having them now offering me 1MB rate for 2$ is kinda retarded. I guess they want to spare themself the trouble of supporting all those carrier (and their problems that might occur)… It just does not feel right.

    Does anybody can point me to a working 3G Module on Ali-Express where I could use my own SIM without having my code/sim caged by a US company?

    As all EarlyBirds are already gone, I will wait until 3 days are left and then maybe order a unit.

    1. Kinda of curios of these podcats you listen to. As to the Spark Electron, GSM shields have been on the shelves for quite some time – I fail to see the difference here…? please correct me if I am wrong.

      1. Size is one difference. cost is possibly another. Built in micro is possibly a third.

        But despite what was said above, the data plan is probably the biggest diff. If you are only logging sensor data, GPS, or any other low data needs, $65 per month is overkill.

        *** BTW, can we just stop the my country is smarter than yours, BS!!?? ****

        1. I never said that one country is better then the other. What I heard in the past, was that the US bundles their phones with Sim Cards sind ever. In Europe it is more common to have the control over your Sim. We have people who use the same sim since a decade and take their sim with them. In the US – again: That’s was I heard from people going to San Francisco and general westcoast – people dont have such a strong bond with their SIM. If it were for apple, they would not only mage it a nano-sim but solder it fix in the device once for all. The ability to have a phone seperated from the carrier is very common thing since the beginning of the mobile phone time in the EU. In the US, not so much. But YMMV.

          1. Two carriers Verizon and Sprint where CDMA so they did not have SIM cards at all.
            AT&T and TMobile used Sim cards.
            1. I am from the US.
            2. I have a Moto-X and my wife has a One+One.
            3. We can use any Sim cards we want and are not tied to a carrier.
            Verizon is the largest carrier in the US and they do lock down their network AT&T, T-Moblile, and now Sprint all let you bring your own devices but Sprint being CDMA+LTE makes the options limited.

    2. i will just stick in my 7,5 GB data plan and use ist for dropbox-sync =)
      Its just 3,5€ / month for 7,5 Gigs LTE, why would i want to send 20k strange “messages” for 3 Bucks a month?

    1. Don’t see why you are willing to pay monthly data charges when one of those ISM ESP8266, NRF24L01, bluetooth or even a 433MHz doorbell module would work. If you have to drive 15 minutes to your mailbox, then that might be a different matter.

      This might be the right device if you want your devices out in the field all over in the country to phone home with data.

  3. for all the nay sayers pissing in our ears about “cell coverage won’t work for a HAB”….

    Well, think again, dust off those old trigonometry text books, or go here

    or here

    So for a HAB @30000 metres up, the horizon is 618km away.

    Which sounds like a long way, but with nothing IN the way, you will get something!

    Cell tower antennae direct all their RF energy parallel outwards not upwards, so the signals you’ll mainly see are those on the horizon.

    The furthest I’ve ever gotten cell data service was around 100km, on top of a ridge 450metres high, across reasonable flat ground, the Huawei program that came with my E169 showed 1 bar or 15% signal strength.
    @450metres the horizon was 75km away, so the cell tower was 25km “over the horizon”.

    There was no way I was going to be able to make a voice call, but you can get away with a lot more (or less) for SMS or data.
    Skype was almost unusable, but I could still get email, browse the web.

        1. Isn’t that always the way with miniaturization? See also mass storage devices, camping equipment, and batteries.

          Also, it may be half the price, but it doesn’t contain a general purpose MCU you can program.

  4. 1MB of data? No thanks.

    At that rate I would only be sending telemetry. I can send that for free via APRS. Why bother with paying for access to a cellular network? Now.. if I can send tons of photos or better yet real-time video… then we can start negotiating on the price.

    1. You don’t even need to pay. T-Mobile offers a free 200MB/mo data-only plan for their prepaid SIMs. That’s a hard 200MB, so unlike their paid plans which just drop down to EDGE speeds after the cap this just stops until the month is up or you pay for additional data. But for most telemetry it’s more than enough. They don’t care what device you’re using, so it could be a tablet, phone with no voice support, portable AP, or GSM module.

      As for APRS, you’re held to the limits of the license, which means it’s a no-go if it’s commercial or encrypted. And it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as GSM.

      1. good luck with that, it is seemingly impossible to activate that sim card using a device like this. they expect you to put the sim in a cellular modem that you can tether and then point your browser to their activation page and go through their activation process. Maybe temporarily use a hotspot device to do the activation and then move the sim over to this device?

        1. I’ve seen quite a few reports saying the free data is locked to the device it was activated on. Move it to another device, any prepaid data is still available and usable, but the free data is not.

    2. APRS, for those who don’t already know, is system of sending digital packets over amateur radio frequencies. Because it’s part of Amateur Radio, it requires a ham radio license (not hard to get), and is restricted to noncommercial use, which probably shouldn’t be an issue for most high altitude balloon users. If you can meet those restrictions, then there are a number of other possibilities for amateur radio connections using various analog and digital modes and frequencies. But the nice thing about APRS is that there is an existing network of (amateur maintained) ground stations which relay their packets to the Internet. The APRS protocol is well-documented and widely used, and hardware is readily and inexpensively available. So most of the work is done for you, and it’s very well suited for short, periodic messages containing position reports and small amounts of telemetry. It’s also cheap.

      This Spark commercial device, on the other hand, has the advantage that it’s not restricted to amateur purposes. And you don’t need a ham license. But a ham license is trivially easy to get, especially compared to the effort required to wire together any sort of telemetry sensors for a balloon.

      73 de AG6QR

  5. The summary is unusually bad. GPRS modules have been around for years, so they are not filling some “gaping hole”. The new development is that they are offering plans which are convenient compared to the draconian contracts most US residents have to deal with. Though, for the amount of data they let you transmit, you may as well use a radio in the ISM band for free. I guess this could be an appealing option if you only need one device and it *MUST* be on the internet, but if you have several devices, it makes much more sense to use normal radios and put your data on the internet using a base station.

  6. I like the idea of a small monthly fee for a connection dedicated to a project, I feel like this is a potential area for future growth and a way that US carriers could get in on the “Maker” trend. The price is right, although I agree with the coverage issues as well as the small data throughput. But this is the first step in the right direction, I would love to deploy some solar powered weather stations and have them report back. It would be even better to get pictures/video from remote locations daily tho.

    1. For weather data, APRS is well suited, and widely used. Google “APRS weather station” for more info. It’s free to use. It does require a ham radio license, but that’s cheap (typically around $15) and easy to get.

      1. I have seen it, and I think it does have it’s uses; but this is something different. I still want to get into APRS for “texting” my status on long camping trips. But the barrier to entry in APRS is somewhat high, hardware and learning-wise. Also the allure of this is somewhere that is in network coverage, maybe something like a GPS tracking system. I’m not saying it is everything I could ever want, but I feel like this exposes an underdeveloped niche in the market and hopefully it will only get better; more data, less money.

  7. Great idea of offering the data plan togheter. I do think 1M is quite little, in the sense that for 5($/EUR) you could get a lot more from your regular carrier on a prepaid card.
    Wait….so the 50B per message, what exactly does it include? what protocol do they use?

  8. The issue with high altitude balloons, buildings, mountain tops with cellular is not the radio horizon and path loss. Without getting into too many details, the cellular base stations all use the same frequencies (3G/4G), or a frequency reuse that repeats (2G). Either way, when the phone is at a high altitude, the phone see’s way too many cell site signals and will not be able to make sense of any of them. If it can’t register successfully with a base station, then it will not transmit. If by some means it were to transmit, it would illuminate many dozens or hundreds of cell sites from an aircraft, causing most of them interference or raising the noise floor. Examples where cellular *can work* dozens of miles is where the mobile is still on the ground (sailboat, desert, remote sparsely populated area, hill top) beyond the edge of coverage. That way a link with one or two base stations is viable. By the way, the round trip latency set by the carrier has to allow the distance you are away from their base station.

  9. Sounds like a perfect device for a tertiary communications link on a sUAS <400 feet up. Primary link – short range radio. Secondary link – long range radio. Tertiary: Cell. Just code your flight control system for failover orbit and RTL.

  10. Hey all of you US folks just a heads up: DON’T back a 2G version. Get a 3G version. AT&T has already started the turndown with the plan to be DONE by 2017. TMobile and the other guys might keep theirs around but your range might be limited. 3G will be around for a bit so get one of those. They are probably not using any AT&T signals which will suck for coverage out in rural areas.

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