Comparison of Wireless Technologies in IoT by Arthur Rowley

The Internet of Things (IoT) has changed how we interact with “things” in profound ways. The Internet of Things (IoT) has changed how we interact with “things” in profound ways. From your favorite house of fun, fleet management, to home automation, IoT applies to nearly every industry. To enable flawless interaction and data exchange between IoT products, like smart door locks, medical sensors, and smartwatches, you need to have the best wireless technology. 

However, the range of IoT application requirements varies hugely from case to case. As such, you need to choose the best wireless IoT technology for your unique use case. The good news is there are many great wireless options to choose from. The not-so-good news is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all connectivity solution.

To help you choose the right communication solution for your upcoming IoT project, we’ll compare common wireless technologies in IoT and their ideal applications.

So, let’s get started.

Comparison of Wireless IoT Technologies 

1. LPWANs

This wireless technology is the new phenomenon in IoT.  LPWANs provide low power, low cost, long-range communication required for large-scale IoT networks. LPWAN transceivers are optimized for power consumption, running on small, inexpensive batteries that last for years. LPWAN technologies provide connectivity for applications and devices that require infrequent data transfer, low speeds, and low mobility, like IoT sensors. Allowing thousands of sensors over broad areas to communicate while maintaining low power consumption makes LPWANs incredibly useful for IoT adoption.

Some applications include consumables monitoring, environmental monitoring, occupancy detection, and asset tracking. Also, it’s important to note that LPWANs encompass different technologies and competing standards. Examples of LPWAN technologies that operate in the licensed spectrum are LTE-M and NB-IoT, and operating in the unlicensed spectrum include Sigfox, MYTHINGS, and LoRa.

Different LPWAN technologies have different degrees of performance in different scenarios. For instance, scalability and Quality-of-Service can be significant issues with unlicensed technologies and power consumption for licensed LPWANs. Be sure to consider standardization of the LPWANs to ensure your IoT network's security, reliability, and interoperability.

2. Cellular (4G/5G)

Cellular networks provide reliable broadband communication for the consumer mobile market, such as video streaming and voice call applications. However, these wireless technologies have high power consumption and high operational costs.

This makes cellular connectivity mostly great for applications that don’t use battery-powered sensor networks, such as fleet management, traffic routing, in-car infotainment, fleet telematics, and many more. Instead, cellular connectivity serves as a superb backhaul using LPWANs to connect to IoT devices and sensors. Cellular then connects to the cloud to deliver the IoT data.

In the IoT space, cellular technology, such as 5G with ultra-low latency and high-speed mobility support, is expected to be the future of augmented reality and autonomous vehicles. With communication latency ten times less than 4G, 5G also makes a great option for time-critical applications like industrial IoT machines, connected health, and public safety.

Also, new cellular technologies like NB-IoT and LTE-M are positioned to enable different types of IoT applications by reducing power requirements and data cost per sensor. For instance, you can use NB-IoT wireless technology for remote environmental sensors to measure different weather elements such as pressure, humidity, wind, temperature, and much more.

These NB-IoT-enabled devices will deliver regular updates from a remote location while ensuring low power consumption. These sensors could last over a decade or longer.

3. Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is inarguably the most widely used wireless technology today. Like cellular and LPWANs, there are different versions of Wi-Fi, including 802.11b, 802.11n, 802.11a, 802.11g, and 802.11ac. These standards vary significantly in terms of signal interference from external sources, data speed, and cost.

One key difference from other wireless technologies is that Wi-Fi transmits at much higher frequencies. This means it can carry more data. However, Wi-Fi has high power requirements and limited coverage. These issues, plus limitations in scalability, make Wi-Fi less prevalent in the IoT space.

Wi-Fi can make an excellent choice for IoT use cases that don’t use battery-powered devices, don’t require high range, and need to transmit vast amounts of data. As such, it is mainly used in home and business environments for connecting internet routers to devices such as smartphones, computers, smart home gadgets, and security systems. 

The latest Wi-Fi generation, Wi-Fi 6, offers enhanced network bandwidth for improved data throughput per device, even in congested environments. This helps boost public Wi-Fi infrastructure while improving customer experience with digital services in the entertainment and retail sectors. 

4. Zigbee and Other Mesh Protocols

This is another short-range wireless technology that operates at 2.4 GHz and consumes very little power. It is standardized as IEEE 802.15.4 and is usually deployed in a mesh topology to transmit IoT sensor data over multiple sensor nodes for extended coverage.

While Zigbee shares many similarities with Bluetooth LE, its mesh network can support up to 65,000 nodes, which is twice as many as BLE can accommodate. Zigbee also has higher data rates than LPWAN but is less power-efficient.

Due to its short range of less than 100 meters, Zigbee and other mesh technologies, such as Z-Wave, are ideal for IoT applications with nodes evenly distributed in close proximity. This makes Zigbee an excellent choice for home automation applications like HVAC controls, smart lighting, smart meters, home energy, security monitoring, and smart thermostats.

5. Bluetooth and BLE

Bluetooth is a short-range connectivity technology that falls under the Wireless Personal Area Networks category. It was initially designed for wireless headsets but has since expanded into many applications such as video game controllers, printers, speakers, and much more.

Bluetooth technology is also crucial for the increasingly growing IoT space, including industrial applications and smart homes. Unlike Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is a high bandwidth, low range, low power wireless connectivity option that operates at 2.4 GHz ISM band. It can be used in star, mesh, broadcast, and point-to-point network topologies. It supports 2 Mbps data throughput, with a maximum of eight connected devices.

There are two Bluetooth versions, namely Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) and Bluetooth Classic, commonly used in streaming applications. On the other hand, Bluetooth Low Energy supports lower data throughput and extends the battery life of Bluetooth devices by significantly reducing power consumption.

BLE-enabled IoT devices are typically used together with smart devices such as your smartphone, which helps deliver data to the cloud. Due to its low power requirements, BLE is now widely used in IoT devices like smartwatches and smart door locks. BLE beacon networks are being employed to unravel new service innovations, such as content delivery, in-store navigation, and personalized promotions.

6. RFID

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) employs radio waves to transfer small amounts of data from an RFID tag to the readers within a short distance. This IoT wireless technology can work either outside of the line of sight or when attached with tags able to be read within a few inches or even several meters in range.

Attaching RFID tags to all your equipment and products allows you to track your assets and inventory in real-time for an optimized supply chain and better production and stock planning. This has brought about a major IoT revolution in the logistics, healthcare, and retail industries.

The RFID IoT revolution enables new IoT applications, such as smart mirrors, smart shelves, and self-checkout, in the retail sector. For healthcare, RFID facilitates IoT applications like hospital patient tracking systems, automated inventory, and tracking and managing costly hospital equipment.

What to Look for in Wireless Technologies for IoT Application

Different IoT applications have different specific requirements. As such, it’s crucial to ensure you choose the right wireless technology for your unique IoT project. Here are some of the key things to look for in wireless technologies:

  • Quality of Service

One of the key things to consider when choosing a wireless technology for your IoT project is the Quality of Service. To ensure excellent QoS and reliability of your wireless technology, check the data reception rate. Typically, a high data reception rate ensures critical IoT data is conveyed when it’s required the most for timely response to imminent issues.

  • Scalability

Choosing a scalable IoT protocol is crucial for network expansion as more and more end devices are added in the future. A great way to determine scalability is by the number of IoT devices supported or daily messages that can be transmitted by one base station.

  • Power Consumption

Battery-powered devices and sensors need to be energy-efficient to reduce recharge cycles and battery replacements, which can significantly impact the amount of data you send or receive. Also, low-power consumption can drastically lower the total cost of ownership, helping you achieve sustainable business goals.

  • Mobility

High-speed data transmission from end devices facilitates key IoT applications, for instance, fleet telematics and worker safety.

  • Security 

To ensure data security and integrity during transmission, go for multi-layer encryption with robust authentication and identification systems. 

  • Network Management

Depending on the complexity of your IoT strategy and use case, you need to determine who will manage the network and whether you have the necessary automation tools and resources to support it.

  • Range

Typically, the more dense the modulation, the greater the frequency and the smaller the range becomes. This also affects the ability to penetrate obstacles. As such, choose the right range based on your specific use case. For example, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, or Bluetooth can be great options for smart home applications since they don’t require line-of-sight, offer better range, and can transmit more data.

Conclusion

As you’ve seen, there are many great wireless technologies for IoT applications. However, no technology is one-size-fits-all. As such, choosing the best wireless technology primarily depends on your IoT project's specific requirements and needs. Also, accurately assessing the bandwidth, power consumption, QoS, network management, security, and range can help narrow down your options and ultimately choose the most suitable technology for your IoT use case.

If you don’t want to navigate the complex and ever-evolving IoT space on your own, there are IoT experts out there who can help you make the right decision from the available IoT wireless technology options.


About the Author:

Arthur Rowley is an avid writer specializing mostly in technology and marketing. Having spent years finessing his craft, he can now assure you that he has much acclaim for these areas and is dedicated to providing high-quality blogging content.

September 13, 2021
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