Despite being in my early 40s, sometimes I really feel old in the M2M space.  I hear all the talk about USB sticks, and I remember a time that we were excited when the first PCMCIA-based device came out in the world of wireless data.  Before that, we had to tether our devices to our PDA or laptop and it rarely ever seemed to work smoothly.  When USB sticks came out, they definitely took the industry by storm.  Most laptops had USB ports that were not being used, so it became the default go-to device for the road warrior as seen in every airport.

Now, the USB data stick is starting to see strong competition from integrated devices such as laptops with embedded wireless modules, mobile hotspots/WiFi being everywhere, and of course, tablets such as the all-mighty iPad.  However, USB sticks still have their place in the world of the mobile worker......they just shouldn't have a big place in the world of M2M going forward.

Now, I will point out that USB-based solutions can offer some compelling things in the M2M space, such as:

  • Some legacy devices, such as bank machines and kiosks, still have a USB port that can be used to provide quick connectivity.
  • With the carriers often subsidizing some (or all) of the hardware cost of a USB stick, the price point is often quite compelling.  They also often have their best rate plans reserved for USB sticks.
  • Finally, the small size of a USB stick often made them a compelling choice for those who were limited in space.

So, with all of these advantages, what is not to like about a USB stick-based solution for M2M?

Modems work well 7x24, sticks like to take a break once in a while

First, I don't believe (like many) that USB sticks are overly "brittle".  They are generally well built and they tend to actually hold up better (from a warranty standpoint) than I ever thought they would when deployed in a 7x24 environment.  The concern here is more to do with the general reliability, and that goes right back to what they are built for.  USB sticks are designed to provide quick access to the Internet for remote workers, and they are great at this.  Modems are designed to act as landline replacements and have many more safeguards built into them to keep them running (such as self-checks and the ability to reboot/reconnect to the network when they are not connected).  USB sticks rely either on the user to connect or on the device that they are attached to, and this tends to provide a less reliable experience.  By the way, don't take my word for it, most USB stick manufacturers will not recommend 7x24 usage of their devices.

USB sticks are stolen/damaged often, modems not as much

USB sticks "stick out" of the device, and as such, they are both prone to being stolen and damaged more than modems.  While some companies have come up with some creative solutions to protect/hide the stick, it goes without saying that people's creativity can often outsmart these solutions.  Modems, on the other hand, aren't stolen as often and often have the ability to withstand even the most harsh environments.  Plus, modems are often put in cabinets or other areas where they are not seen....USB sticks tend to need to be more on the outside, due to antenna options.


Ok, that wasn't the most subtle transition, but this is a vital point to make.  Sure, there are some limited options to equip USB sticks with external antennas, but they tend to be clumsy and usually cannot be "locked" in the same way as an external antenna.  This is vital, since there are many times when installers need to have maximum flexibility for antennas when at locations that may have lower cellular coverage.

Total cost of ownership favours modems

I have written about this many times before, but it is worth repeating.  Customers should look at the total cost of ownership for a modem when considering whether to use a USB-based solution or an embedded module one. 

Here are some thoughts:

  • What are the costs when the device is not connected?  Most embedded modems have the ability to be rebooted over the air, including some that can use SMS messages to send commands/instructions.  While some USB-based modems can also offer these solutions, the USB stick is simply more prone to failures.  So, what does "failure" cost your business?  What is the cost to send someone out for a reboot?  What is the cost to your business if you are not connected (lost revenue, angry customers, etc)?
  • Most modems have a 5-8 year life span on them, while a USB stick may have to be replaced 2-3 times in that same time period.  Most customers are shocked to realize that only the first USB stick is discounted.....the rest of them cost the full amount (usually hundreds of dollars).  This also applies if your device is stolen or damaged.
  • Finally, how are you going to handle upgrades to the device?  Some industries require frequent updates to maintain security standards, such as in the medical, credit card payment and government spaces.  Will your USB-based solution support these changes, and if so.....What is your cost to perform upgrades to your devices, if you cannot reach devices over the air?

Bottom line

While on the road, let's keep the USB sticks for our laptops (and not in Starbucks) and use the devices that these solutions demand!

As always, let Novotech know how we can help with your M2M needs, such as antenna selection.  You can visit our web page @  As well, feel free to reach out to me directly ....larry(@)  You can also follow us on Twitter (@NovotechM2M) and you can follow me personally as well (@LBNovotechM2M).