Connectivity is one of, if not the most important aspect of any IoT projects. After all, the Internet of Things is essentially about how IoT devices are interconnected to each other and to the internet, allowing IoT devices to send and receive data and communicate with each other.
Simply put, no matter how advanced an IoT device is, you won’t get any value from it if there’s no network protocol and connectivity solution to connect this device to the internet.
With that being said, Wi-Fi remains one of the most popular connectivity options in various IoT projects. However, Wi-Fi is not the only IoT connectivity option available, and it’s also not the best.
In fact, Wi-Fi in IoT deployments has a striking issue: the very limited range. With IoT projects growing larger and larger in recent years, Wi-Fi is no longer a viable option in many large-scale IoT projects.
Here, we will take a look at the alternatives to Wi-Fi in IoT deployments, and how to choose between them.
As discussed, Wi-Fi is just one among many IoT connectivity solutions available at the moment. There are actually more than 100 connectivity options available for IoT, with around 30 being widely used in various IoT projects.
The question is, why so many?
The simple answer is that because, at the moment, we don’t have a single, perfectly ideal solution that can cater to all IoT use cases.
An ideal IoT connectivity solution should:
- Consume as little energy as possible, close to zero energy
- Has the widest possible coverage area, in theory, should be able to connect a device positioned in the North Pole with another device in the South Pole
- Has as high bandwidth as possible, should be able to send a near-unlimited amount of data at any given time
We simply don’t have a technology that is capable of such things at the moment, and this is why all kinds of IoT connectivity technologies always feature at least one tradeoff between energy consumption, bandwidth, and range.
- Energy consumption: it’s worth noting that many IoT devices are battery-powered and are deployed remotely.
- Coverage range: if the devices are separated by a fair distance, then the coverage range of the IoT connectivity solution can be an important issue
- Bandwidth: some IoT devices must send and receive a lot of data.
With that being said, Wi-Fi is a connectivity technology that consumes low to medium levels of energy, has very high bandwidth capability, but offers a very limited coverage range.
When considering the connectivity alternatives to Wi-Fi, we have to also consider these three requirements.
Type: High Energy Consumption, High Range, High Bandwidth
Most of us are familiar with cellular connectivity in our smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices, and cellular is also one of the most popular Wi-Fi alternatives for IoT projects.
With cellular connectivity, the IoT devices are using the same connectivity technology that we use on our smartphones: the devices connect to a cellular broadcast tower to connect to the cloud and other devices.
The key advantage of cellular IoT is range. Cellular towers are virtually everywhere, and as long as you are within range of one, you can connect to other devices or other people at a global scale. By partnering with the right cellular IoT service provider like Truphone for Things, you can get reliable coverage in more than 100 countries with just a single data plan.
Cellular connectivity is also very reliable, and much more widely available than WI-Fi, you only need an eSIM or even a standard SIM card to easily connect the device to the internet.
The major downside of cellular IoT, however, is energy consumption. It consumes more energy than Wi-Fi and in most cases is not ideal for IoT devices that rely on battery power.
Type: Low Energy Consumption, Low Range, High Bandwidth
Bluetooth is very similar to Wi-Fi in many different ways: it consumes relatively low energy and can send a reasonable amount of data at any given time, but the main tradeoff is its very limited range.
Bluetooth used to be an energy-draining connectivity solution, but with the relatively recent introduction of Bluetooth LE (Low Energy), it now consumes less power than Wi-Fi.
With that being said, Bluetooth LE consumes less energy than Wi-Fi but also has lower bandwidth than Wi-Fi. So, it’s ideal for battery-powered devices that don’t require a lot of bandwidth in small-scale IoT projects.
Type: Low Energy Consumption, Low/High Range (depending on the number of devices), Low Bandwidth
Mesh IoT networks connect the devices in a mesh topology so they can work together to send data to a chosen device in the mesh network. The mesh topology will effectively amplify the range of data transmission while maintaining low energy consumption. However, the main tradeoff with mesh technologies is low bandwidth.
Zigbee and Z-Wave are two popular examples of IoT mesh technologies, and are ideal for devices that require less bandwidth than Wi-Fi and when devices can stay within 30-50 feet of each other.
Type: Low Energy Consumption, High Range, Low Bandwidth
Low-Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) is an umbrella term for various newer technologies that are capable of sending data over a long distance while maintaining a low power consumption. The tradeoff is the low bandwidth capabilities, but there are actually various IoT devices that don’t really need to send or receive a lot of data.
LoRa and SigFox are among the popular examples of LPWAN technologies, along with modifications to cellular technologies like NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) and LTE-M.