In this blog, we cover seven non-cellular connection choices to connect your IoT devices (Ethernet, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, SigFox, LoRa, Satellite and Private networks), including some of the pros and cons for each and discuss ideal applications. This blog is also in the form of a webinar, so if you'd rather listen, click the hyperlinked titles to hear the webinar.
Welcome to the blog, I'm Larry Bellehumeur.
In this series, we are doing part two of our guide to helping you choose the best network to connect your IoT devices too. This one covers the non-cellular options, including Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, two newer wireless entrants (SigFox and LoRa), and two commonly used choices in industrial and remote applications Satellite and Private Radio.
Here is a bit about me: I have been in the field of what is now called IoT for about 20 years, working in a variety of areas that have given me a unique level of exposure to assist people in their IoT journey.
Novotech has been in the IoT space for about 20 years and is in an excellent place to help you with any aspect of your IoT journey.
We are adding another seven choices to connect your IoT device, in addition to the seven cellular options we covered in Part One.
First, you are not locked into a choice for any product or introduce a variation of your product. Some people may opt, as an example, to connect a consumer-grade offering to a smartphone via Bluetooth. In contrast, another version may connect via Wi-Fi that is for businesses. Finally, if you decide that your industrial version may not always have Wi-Fi available at a site, you can opt to choose one of the cellular options.
Most IoT platforms will have no issue receiving the data from multiple methods, giving you the flexibility that you need.
Also, many manufacturers have products, either cellular routers or modules, that quickly change out to another technology if your needs change.
Finally, while we have listed several applications (both in Part One and here in Part two), a particular technology may be ideal for your business. Some of these applications, as many as 10-12 choices may work, so you can often stick with your preferred method for many deployments.
Over the past few years, Wi-Fi has emerged as the most common way that most people access the Internet while at work, and especially while at home. It gained incredible acceptance as it allowed us to work more freely, such as when many sit in front of the TV with their iPads. The emergence of Wi-Fi has not been without its issues, new networks were not all that fast, networks often became congested, and security was always a concern. However, most of those things have been overcome, and Wi-Fi shows no sign of slowing down.
In the world of IoT, Wi-Fi has two distinct roles. First, it connects many devices that are intended to be used in the home, ranging from smart appliances to smart plugs to your Ring Door Bell. Second, many gateways have on-board Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity to allow for people to connect. This Wi-Fi application may include passengers on a bus or an EMS attendant, now being able to gather information at the patient's side away from the ambulance.
The first significant advantage of Wi-Fi is its widespread availability in most homes and businesses; Connectivity is available in most locations. Next, Wi-Fi modules are very low cost, allowing for Wi-Fi on many lower-cost devices. As well, since most Wi-Fi is backhauled on high bandwidth networks, data usage is often free (or close to it), making it an ideal way to send large files, such as video feeds from cameras.
Its final advantage is that it is easy to connect, as most people understand how to connect a new device onto their network or, in the case of my parents, they can just ask me!
On the negative side, Wi-Fi has a major drawback in IoT, and it is not for the user, but the manufacturer. In the case of some wearables, the user sees sending information up to the cloud as a major benefit, so they will be sure to keep the device connected. However, if the data sent from the device is meant for the manufacturer, such as usage data, most users will not see the need to connect the device, meaning that it will continuously be left unconnected. For this reason, expect many manufacturers to look at low-cost cellular options like CAT-M going forward.
The second negative is the lack of Wi-Fi coverage for temporary events or locations. This problem is being solved more and more as companies are using Wi-Fi-enabled cellular gateways, which means that Wi-Fi is not ideal for unknown sites. In terms of applications, the first one that jumps out for Wi-Fi is any smart home device. There is a lot of talks that cellular devices could be used, but I still think Wi-Fi will dominate here for a long time. Fixed large office equipment, think large printers/scanners and HVAC units make a lot of sense to connect via Wi-Fi, as they both stationary often, and the user will see value in keeping the device connected.
It will be interesting to see how many tablet manufacturers adopt 5G as the key to access the Internet. Some tablets, like iPads, do have cellular connectivity, but most iPad users will still access the Internet using Wi-Fi for the time being. Finally, many smart health devices will use Wi-Fi. It may be in a dual radio deployment (such as in the watch that has both embedded cellular and Wi-Fi) or a smart scale that only uses Wi-Fi. Again, time will tell how much emerging cellular technologies like CAT-M have an impact here.
I have to admit, I have not ditched the cable. I still use Ethernet for my main computer. Yes, I run a Wi-Fi network in the house, but I do a lot of real-time video conferencing, and as good as Wi-Fi has become, the latency is much better when wired.
Ethernet is far from dead, especially in the world of IoT. Millions of devices connect to cellular gateways via Ethernet ports, so as a technology, it is going strong. However, as a primary method of connecting your device to the Internet, it is becoming less common.
As mentioned, it is still the method that offers the lowest latency to connect to the Internet, making a hardwire into your router the ideal method of connecting for fixed applications like routers, medical machines and more. Part of its appeal is both a pro and a con, as you will see. On the Pro side, many people feel comfortable with a physical connection between devices. Maybe they played that telephone game with cans and string as kids too much, but many people still prefer it over wireless connections.
Finally, as much as there are ways to secure Wi-Fi networks, most security experts like the idea of a hardwired connection. This is the case for most servers and high-value devices. As mentioned, the wire is both a pro and a con. On the con side, wires can be cut, whether it is accidental or on purpose. Ethernet cables can be made tough, but most are prone to damage. There are also limitations to Ethernet cables in terms of length and cost to run them. Most deployments using Ethernet assume that your building is pre-wired, which less and less are now.
In terms of applications, it is still dominant in connecting routers and most high-end computing devices. I was in a hotel a while back, and it was surprising to see how their primary connection method to the Internet for most guests was a hardwired connection; can you imagine, no Wi-Fi in the room? Luckily, I had a laptop, and it was fine. Most computing devices still have Ethernet connectors as standard, but that is starting to change, mostly driven by the need to thin down devices.
Although many of us often use wireless point of sale devices, either at our table in a restaurant or with a delivery, most of PoS devices in retail are still connected via hardwire.
In short, Ethernet is still a standard technology for connecting to cellular gateways. Yet, less than fewer devices are using it as their primary method of accessing the Internet in devices for the home or office. The continued growth of Wi-Fi and the expected growth of 5G will further lead to its demise.
Ah, Bluetooth. Way too much of my life has been spent trying to pair headsets, headphones or speakers using Bluetooth. While it has gotten much better, it is still annoying when it does not want to connect. However, it has emerged as the ideal short-haul network between devices when the cost may be a factor. I expect Bluetooth to keep on being added to more and more devices.
Its low cost for components allows Bluetooth to be put into so many devices in our life. As speeds and expenses continue to improve, expect this to continue. Despite my frustrations, it has become more stable and easier to set up. It has also become more secure, allowing for it to be used in more situations. Finally, its relatively low power usage provides for it to be used in battery-powered cases where maximum battery life is needed. On the negative side, since Bluetooth requires some sort of computing device to access the Internet, such as a laptop, phone or tablet, it is not ideal for standalone or real-time applications that may not have a device present. While some Industrial versions of BT have surprisingly long ranges between devices, it is generally somewhat limited in how far it can connect devices.
Bluetooth's first ideal application is pairing the device up to another device to work, like in the case of a wearable technology that pairs with a smartphone. As well, another ideal application for Bluetooth is when it is used as an asset monitoring solution as part of a hub/spoke setup. Simply, a gateway connects to the Internet (using Wired or wireless) and to all of the assets via Bluetooth. For example, a car dealership tracking keys or a warehouse tracking a skid. In the case of industrial Bluetooth, it is commonly used in communicating with medical equipment in hospitals.
Finally, as most cars are moving towards adding on-board connectivity, Bluetooth may be an option for some in-vehicle devices where you are planning on using the car's internet connection to access the Internet.
One of the lesser-known entrants into the world of IoT is SigFox, which has some serious potential to be a dominant network, as long as you can live with some of its limitations. Many will be able to do so, but it is a network that you want to do plenty of research before considering.
On the positive side, it excels in sending tiny bits of data across the network. If your application is quite simple (such as a basic daily status), it offers a very compelling offer. Its battery life is extraordinary, meaning that people see times between battery changes that are much longer than we have ever seen before, often many years, which reduces the servicing and the cost of devices.
On the negative side, it seems to have a lower level of security than many competing technologies. As well, it does not take much to exceed its data capabilities, so it is more limited. Finally, while coverage is extensive in many parts of the world, it is not in most North American areas. So, do your research before considering SigFox to ensure that you have coverage where you need it.
In terms of applications, SigFox has a similar customer base to some lower bandwidth cellular technologies, like CAT-M and especially NB-IoT, when it comes out. The first network is tracking non-powered devices, like a porta-potty at a construction site or a skid being shipped between warehouses. Similarly, it seems to be used a lot in deployments that are slightly below ground, such as some buried pieces of electrical equipment.
I can see it having some popularity in tracking some industrial equipment, such as compressors and valves. Finally, it should compete well with Cat-M when it comes to monitoring some delivery services. Still, I see this more for tracking packages as opposed to vehicles, as SigFox is not for objects in motion.
The second of the lesser-known, non-cellular options is LoRA, which is short for Long Range. It has started to gain some momentum, so depending on your situation, it very likely is one to be on your radar.
The first upside is the large group of companies that have shown support for this technology, including Cisco, IBM and more. This likely means that it should have some good backing, and it gives comfort for developers to invest time in this technology. It looks to be entirely secure, offering very high levels of security and encryption. This encryption puts it on par with what most companies are looking to use.
It seems to be ideal for many lower-cost applications. Some estimates are that, for instance, it can offer tank monitoring solutions with hardware costs as low as 40 dollars and on-going costs of just $2 or less. This price may open up new markets that have never been effective to monitor before.
On the negative side, it is not a speedster, limiting its capabilities mostly to simple monitoring. It also has a relatively high latency level, making it not ideal for real-time applications. In terms of applications, many municipalities and regions are looking at or have deployed Lora networks to monitor critical assets like lighting systems and water levels. Assuming there is coverage, Lora may be ideal for agricultural applications, such as watering systems and monitoring of the level of moisture in the soil.
Environmental monitoring, as I have mentioned before, is a wide-ranging topic. It can be things like temperature monitoring, pH level monitoring of a river and measuring particles in the air. LoRa would be ideal for monitoring these types of deployments.
The last example is smart metering, such as utility companies monitoring critical assets in the field.
Finally, if you watched the first part of these series, you may have picked up that many of these applications could also be made using technologies like CAT-M, and that is true. There is a lot of overlap, so if you are doing low-bandwidth, simple monitoring, you will want to do a bit of research. With LoRa, one of the most significant issues may be coverage, depending on where you live, so be sure to look into that as well before moving forward.
If you need a technology to work at the end of the earth, you will be drawn to satellite technology, as it covers oceans, rural and mountain areas and just about everywhere else.
Not all networks are the same- GEO satellites are stationary over one spot. They are often used for higher data speed applications low-earth orbit ones fly relatively close to the earth, making them ideal for "relatively" real-time applications like voice. Medium earth orbit systems operate much higher above the ground and offer much higher data speeds than lower ones.
There are other ones as well, including ones designed for TV. The first benefit, as we mentioned, is coverage.No cellular network will ever approach the through level of coverage worldwide that a satellite network will offer. For most applications, especially IoT, the speeds available from cellular are "good enough."It won't compete with 5G, but it is more than enough for most monitoring and simple IoT applications. On the negative side, satellite communication has a higher latency than many cellular networks. Now, many IoT applications are not materially affected by latency, so this may not be as issue.
Finally, especially with the cost of cellular data for IoT expected to fall with the latest networks, satellite data can be much more expensive than other options. The satellite has always done well in markets where, for the most part, it was the only option. As an example, if you are tracking a container across the ocean, it is your only option. Similarly, if you are tracking a long-haul truck, although cellular coverage is vastly improved, a satellite is an ideal fall-back for areas where it is not available.
Oil and Gas have been a long-time customer of satellite communications for most parts of their business in terms of fixed assets. This includes tracking vehicles, but I wanted to talk about SCADA applications like monitoring oil wells and equipment. Satellite just worked, there was no need to worry about if there was a cell tower nearby. Finally, if your workers truly go everywhere, such as a forestry worker or disaster recovery crew, the only way that you could monitor if they are safe is to consider satellite, as works in all of the areas that they do.
In short, I look at the satellite as being ideal in two scenarios. First, if your deployment is nowhere near cell coverage, think off-shore drilling, extremely remote areas of mountains and deserts. Second, if your solution may truly need to work everywhere, satellite is the best option to make that happen.
About two decades ago, I got my first exposure to private radio networks, as we were trying to convince a police force to use cellular data to transmit key data. Now, that seems dated, as virtually all forces have incorporated Cellular data in some form. Before that, all data and voice traffic were sent on closed private radio networks. Private radio IoT is still quite big, not only in public safety but in mining, oil/gas and many remote and industrial applications. It is an optimal choice for many low-power applications, such as extremely remote monitoring applications.
Easier to find support for many industrial protocols and port options, although I will say that many industrial-grade cellular modems have now made their way into this space and can often compete very well. One recent trend has emerged in private LTE networks. This trend will be ideal for cities, police forces, and utility companies. On the negative side, you are running your network. Do you have the time, expertise, available land for towers and redundancy plans to do such a thing?
Depending on what you are doing, you may find that your selection of devices is much smaller than on more popular networks like 4G and CAT-M. In short, the idea of having your network is something that many will investigate, but few will move forward on. With cellular carriers offering better speeds, capacity and coverage than ever before, it has become a more challenging business case to make. However, for those looking for maximum control and security, and willing to put in the effort, it may make sense. That may include a municipality. Some have looked at networks like LoRa, while others are looking to launch their LTE network for workers. It will be interesting to see how many do with the upcoming launch of Band14 networks.
Similarly, many utility companies may have hundreds of thousands of assets in a particular city. Most used a combination of short-haul Radio and cellular to bring back the data for processing. It will be interesting to see which way they stick with what they have, embedded CAT-M or running their network?
As mentioned earlier, hub/spoke applications have many assets that all use the same connection point to get access to the Internet. However, unlike the example of a car dealership looking for their keys, some assets in the field may be miles apart. I think that some may choose to use private radio technology to backhaul the data from the remote device to the hub.
Finally, we always talk about how IoT is about data. Still, it is essential to remember that many deployments use a combination of voice and data, such as a remote police officer. Private Radio is always preferred by many for voice-based traffic. I think it will be interesting to see how much the new cellular technologies, as well as offerings like SigFox, change the mind of many companies and organizations when it comes to running their networks.
Here is a rough comparison between the networks when it comes to 4 critical categories. One important thing to remember about several of these technologies is that the technology may contain several extensive variables, as there is more than one option. As an example, satellite communication comes in both high-speed flavours and lower speed ones. We will try to factor in these variables.
Data speed is an example of something that everyone thinks they need as much as possible, but most IoT applications are not sped dependent. If you are sending video, sure, you need a reasonably high bandwidth application, but most IoT is based on lower bandwidth applications where data speed is not a factor. As always, consider what you may need now and what you may need in the future if you are only ever doing simple monitoring, you can get away with a network like SigFox, but if you may wish to add video, it becomes a wrong choice quickly.
Similarly, latency is something that often has little impact on your application. If it takes one of your team 10 mins to get to a site, then will an extra second or two for the alarm to come in make a difference? ... probably not. However, if you are making a real-time application, like some high-security applications, the longer latency from technology like satellite makes it difficult.
I am starting to see a pattern here power usage matters in many applications, such as tracking devices or long-life battery-powered asset monitors. However, if you are connecting to a power source that also powers a large compressor, it is doubtful that the power consumption from a gateway would make a difference.
It is important to note that you also need to factor in Internet connectivity into some of these choices. A connection like SigFox or Satellite will handle the reporting of a device on its own, whereas a Bluetooth based connection requires its donor device to have Internet connectivity. If your customer expects to provide it, then this may not be a factor. Remember that you can still do a split deployment, using any one of these technologies (and even the seven cellular-based ones mentioned in part one)
Novotech is a great place to start your IoT journey. We have a lot of great material on our web page, offer industry-leading service and expertise and have a local presence through our vast reseller network. I also ask that you follow us on LinkedIn and YouTube.