Raspberry Pi 3 gets low-bandwith LTE with add-on chip

An Altair LTE Category-1 chipset will attach to the top of the Raspberry Pi 3 board for long-distance communications

Raspberry Pi 3 today has only Wi-Fi connectivity, but soon it will also be able to handle low-throughput cellular communications and let users control devices over long distances.

Altair has completed testing of its ALT1160 Category 1 LTE chip on Raspberry Pi, and is now making it available, a company representative said. That's significant, as it will bring much-needed, long-range communications to the popular board computer.

The LTE chip is ready for sale by Altair and its partners, a company representative said. The chip will be included in various third-party add-on LTE expansion boards and sensor modules for Raspberry Pi; otherwise, Altair will take volume orders for the chip. Each chip will cost roughly $15 to $20, though prices are coming down, said Eran Eshed, co-founder of Altair. 

Raspberry Pi is used to make gadgets, robots, drones and smart devices. But, with Wi-Fi only, up to now it has had limited communication range. Users will be able to tack on the Altair LTE chip module for long-distance communications, albeit at slow data speeds.

Users will, for example, be able to control robots that are miles away, or access video surveillance cameras over cellular networks.

Adding LTE capability is also an enabler for IoT applications, said Eben Upton, founder of Raspberry Pi. For example, users will be able to use Raspberry Pi to remotely control industrial IoT equipment.

The chip transfers data at 10Mbps, which is much slower than speeds of up to 600Mbps in the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Apple iPhone 7. IoT and smart devices typically require less bandwidth for communications, however, and that helps retain long device battery life.

There is no plan right now to integrate LTE directly into Raspberry Pi, said Upton. So users will have to buy third-party modems like Altair's LTE chipset and attach them to the board.

"For cost and engineering reasons there is no current plan to integrate LTE functionality into the core product itself," Upton said.

Upton fits as many components as he can into a Raspberry Pi while still keeping the price at $35. While he's adding new features to every model, LTE chipsets are still expensive.

Carriers are also deploying cellular networks for IoT and smart devices. South Korea's SK Telecom already has a pricing plan in place for such networks, and AT&T and Verizon are deploying networks in the U.S.

Altair's chipset is certified by multiple carriers around the world. The software drivers for the LTE chipset to work on Raspberry Pi are also ready, Altair said.

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