Cellular Connectivity Comes to Microcontrollers With The Spark Electron

Arduino Technology
Cellular Connectivity Comes to Microcontrollers With The Spark Electron
The new Spark Electron
The new Spark Electron

Meet Electron from Spark, the new board that puts GSM cellular connectivity directly on the microcontroller.

With its onboard cellular antenna, this diminutive board will offer a huge range of deployment options and alleviate the hassle of using a custom cellular breakout board with your micro controller projects. They’re offering two versions, with either 2G or 3G connectivity.

It thankfully also reduces the frustration of dealing with mobile carriers — more on that in a moment.


Annotated Electron layout
Annotated Electron layout

The Electron features an ARM Cortex M3, the same chip that’s in the Spark Photon, and a few other familiar features.

  • STM32F205 ARM Cortex M3 microcontroller
  • 1MB Flash, 128K RAM
  • Cellular modem: U-Blox SARA U-series (3G) or G-series (2G)
  • 36 pins total: 28 GPIOs (D0-D13, A0-A13), plus TX/RX, 2 GNDs, VIN, VBAT, WKP, 3V3, RST
  • Board dimensions: 2.0″ x 0.8″ x 0.3″ (0.5″ including headers)
  • Two versions: 2G or 3G connectivity

Interestingly, it does not include a wifi option — all wireless communications channel through the cellular connection.


Mobile Virtual Network Operator Advantage

While all the specs look great, the most interesting announcement is that Spark is becoming a MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) — in essence a reseller of mobile data plans — and will provide cost effective, reliable network services to accompany the Electron.

Hopefully, their move into the network operator space will reduce those curious calls to major cellular provides where you try and explain what an Arduino is and why you would have a data plan for a microcontroller. Trust me, those conversations with large providers are not fun, and I’ve had more than my share of them!

Zach Supalla, co-found are CEO of Spark, puts it in a more diplomatic way: “We’re surrounded by cellular towers designed for our mobile phones and tablets, but those same cell towers can be used for all kinds of products. We hope to bring this technology to the masses and enable a whole new generation of connected products.”

Cheap Data Rates

But how much is all this really going to cost you? Fortunately the costs are given on the kickstarter page:

  • $2.99/month for 1MB (approx. 20,000 messages per month)
  • $0.99/each additional MB
  • No contracts

Further clarifying any potential hidden costs is the press release, which states:

“The Electron comes with a SIM card and a $2.99/mo data plan that can be canceled anytime. Plans for both 2G and 3G cellular networks are available, along with international plans in select countries.”

All that sounds good to me.

The Electron is now available for pre-order on Kickstarter starting at $39 for 2G and $59 for 3G.

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I love to tinker and write about electronics. My days are spent building projects and working as a Technical Editor for MAKE.

View more articles by David Scheltema


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