While the Internet of Things, or IoT, might seem like a complicated concept at first glance, actually it is pretty simple.
IoT in its most basic essence is a network that connects physical objects (things) together, so these things can communicate, share data, and to a certain extent, control and automate each other. These “things” can be smartphones, tablets, wearables, devices, machine tools, and even vehicles, but the key is that they are connected.
Thus, the core of IoT is the connection between physical objects such as devices, which is made possible via various IoT connectivity solutions.
The bigger the IoT network is, so do the volumes of data produced and transported over the IoT connectivity technology. Also, with the seemingly endless variety of IoT deployments and applications, choosing the right connectivity solution for the specific use case can be very challenging.
In this article, we will discuss an overview of various popular IoT connectivity solutions, but let’s first answer the most pressing question: why do we have so many IoT connectivity options in the first place?
Why So Many IoT Connectivity Solutions?
IoT connectivity solutions vary in their technical specifications, including:
- Data rate (bandwidth)
- Energy efficiency (battery life)
- Manufacturing cost of hardware
- Maximum data range
- Data security
For example, cellular IoT offers a similar data rate to Wi-Fi, but cellular has a far wider coverage area.
So, why so many variations?
The simplest answer is that because, at the moment, a perfect connectivity solution that will be suitable for all IoT use cases doesn’t yet exist.
Out of all the technical specifications above, three are the most important: data rate, energy efficiency, and coverage, and a perfect IoT connectivity solution should:
- Has as high a data rate as possible
- Has the widest possible coverage area (can connect a device on the North Pole to another device on the South Pole)
- Consumes as little energy as possible
Such technology obviously doesn’t exist, at least at the moment, and so all the IoT connectivity options we have at the moment always features a tradeoff of at least one out of these three specifications.
Based on these requirements, IoT connectivity solutions can be divided into two major categories: wired and wireless, and we can also further divide wireless solutions into another two: long-range and short-range.
Different Types of IoT Connectivity Solutions
Wired connectivity solutions might seem obsolete by today’s standards, but in some IoT use cases, wired connectivity might be the most ideal. For example, when two “things” stay in the same room at a fairly short distance and there’s no need for mobility, then wired connectivity might be the most cost-effective and reliable solution.
Ethernet is the most common type of wired IoT connectivity solution, but there are also other solutions developed specifically for IoT like G.hn and Homeplug, among others.
Wired solutions are common among broadband applications (i.e. residential IPTV, smart grids), and data can be transferred through existing electrical wires (powerline) rather than needing to install new wires.
Wireless connectivity solutions are where things get interesting.
As discussed, we can further divide wireless IoT solutions into two different categories: short-range, and long-range, and we should also pay attention to the tradeoff of each solution.
For short-range solutions, coverage is typically the tradeoff, but long-range solutions can have either bandwidth or energy efficiency as the tradeoff.
Short-Range IoT Connectivity Solutions
Bluetooth used to be a major battery drain, but since the introduction of Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE), it’s now an energy-efficient solution. Has a pretty short coverage range (around 100m) but pretty decent bandwidth (up to 2Mbps), Bluetooth is ideal for IoT deployments where devices are separated by a relatively low range but you still want some form of mobility and relatively high data rate.
Another popular solution, Wi-Fi has a maximum range of around 50 m but can transfer data at a much higher speed than Bluetooth, up to 600Mbps. Great in applications that require high bandwidth but coverage range isn’t much of an issue. Popular in IoT deployments like smart houses, smart offices, schools, and other low-range applications.
There are also newer Wi-Fi standards like Wi-Fi HaLow that have up to 1km in coverage range, although it’s still not very popular at the moment.
In this type of connectivity solution, the group of devices acts as a single network, and the devices are treated as nodes. So, data is transferred by using the interconnection among devices to efficiently route data between devices.
Z-Wave and Zigbee are the most popular examples of mesh technologies, every two devices in the network can be separated up to 100 meters away from each other, but the coverage range can be virtually unlimited as long as you keep adding devices to the mesh topology. However, has a relatively low data rate (up to 250 kbps for Zigbee).
Long Range IoT Connectivity Solutions
Cellular IoT connectivity is still the best option for IoT solutions that require long-distance data transfers with high data rates. By partnering with an IoT data plan provider that offers global coverage, businesses can easily and reliably deploy a global-scale IoT application.
Since cellular towers are available virtually everywhere in the world, cellular IoT connectivity is also very reliable, and the recently introduced 5G connectivity will only improve cellular IoT connectivity as one of the most popular connectivity solutions.
The downside of this connectivity option is energy consumption. Cellular connectivity is power-hungry and might not be ideal for battery-powered IoT devices.
Low-Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) is an umbrella term referring to new forms of connectivity technologies that are designed to maintain energy efficiency while being able to transfer data across very long distances (up to 50 km). The tradeoff? The data rate, although newer technologies are being developed to tackle this issue.
LoRaWAn and Sigfox are currently the two most popular examples of LPWAN technologies.
When choosing between different IoT connectivity solutions, businesses should carefully assess the technical requirements of their IoT applications. Especially, which between energy efficiency, data rate, and coverage range can be sacrificed in the IoT application.
While no IoT connectivity solution today is perfect, cellular IoT connectivity remains the best bet for a global-scale IoT deployment, or if you plan to scale your IoT project into an international or even global scale in the future.